By: Audrey Thurston Yilmaz, PHR on September 24th, 2015

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Best Practices for Employee Morale During a Government Shutdown

Communication | Best Practices | Employee Relations

Midnight, Sept. 30, is looming and without a continuing resolution or bipartisan appropriation agreement, the likelihood of a government shutdown increases. Employers must be prepared to manage workloads and morale. It is well known that low employee morale negatively impacts productivity and engagement. It’s therefore critical that employers consider sensitivity and tact in drafting policy around a shutdown.

In a time of confusion and stress, well-prepared communication can provide clear direction and guidance. There can however be unintended consequences if that same policy is drafted with no thought to its inferred meaning. During the last shutdown, employers inadvertently added insult to injury by differentiating staff in terms of them being either essential or nonessential. Suffice it to say these labels were poorly received.

“The term "nonessential" is not a favorite. During the last shutdown, some complained that the label "nonessential" was insulting.”   

DC Shutdown Sheds Light on Which Employees Matter Most

Employees felt value judgements were being placed on them, not just their jobs. In short, employees took the phrasing personally.  The positive side is that it’s heartening to know that employees take pride in their jobs, and know their work matters. Enlightened employers, armed with this employee feedback based knowledge should take care in crafting intentional policy by using situationally relevant terms.

“Companies set the entire tone for the workplace. When they show respect…employees feel appreciated and apply themselves to their job.”

Correlation between Productivity and Morale

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) offers Guidance for Shutdown Furloughs providing definitions to frame the categories of employees whose work will be impacted. Below are the definitions, paraphrased in lay terms:

  • Excepted: In general, refers to employees whose work has been identified by law, and may continue to be performed during a shutdown. Excepted workers typically include: the military, air traffic, prisons, banking and work involving the safety of human life or the protection of property and guarding federal property.
  • Non-Excepted: This refers to employees who may not continue to work if funds are not appropriated and the jobs are not in the exempt /excepted or excepted work category.

Government shutdowns create public and personal crisis. Helios HR believes that during, and in spite of, troubling times, employers can operate with intention by paving the way to positive employee engagement with carefully chosen words.  Employers can effectively avoid problematic, value-based wording by making it clear that the categories, excepted, non-excepted, are linked to funding, not job value. Doing so allows employers to focus on the issues, without creating, or contributing to, employees feeling unappreciated- along with being unfunded.