To Stay or Go?

By Jim Mullen
Emergency Management, Once Removed

Emergency managers are not strangers to the “stay or go” dilemma. In my career, during but also before entering emergency management, I myself sometimes felt like, well, a lot of federal Administration employees may currently feel these days. For 26 ½ of my final 28 years in government, I was in an unprotected classification. I could have been dismissed any number of times, with no more than a phone call or a terse letter.

There are less than ethical ways to get rid of a civil servant in a protected job (absent provable ethical or legal lapses). Limiting the scope of one’s responsibilities or marginalizing the individual can make him/her feel they are unable to contribute meaningfully to the organization. Some refer to these methods as “cutting off their oxygen”. I once wore as a badge of honor one such professional slight. I had offended the director of the city’s policy planning agency (by refusing to lie to the City Council and agency staff) in the early 1980s and one day found partitions rearranged to put me in the middle of a hallway! I never took the “hint”. “Rescued” by another senior manager, I outlasted that director’s tenure!

The reasons for staying in an unsatisfying job can be many: in the above instance, I had four young children, decent-paying jobs were not exactly plentiful at the time, and the abuse I received was not more than I believed I could handle. Somewhat perversely, I enjoyed greeting that director cheerfully every day, which clearly annoyed him.

There can be many reasons for putting up with a difficult work environment: among them a sense of a higher commitment to the work, to colleagues, and the public. For career employees, with civil service protections, it may just be the expectation that one day, things will change for the better.

For exempt, or political hires there is a different calculation to be made. In such circumstances one must analyze how much a difference one can make by remaining, and enduring. However, policies with which you may disagree still must be carried out. By remaining, you may able to minimize the negatives of that policy. Swallowing your disaffection for a specific policy and implementing may position you to influence more significant issues later. Yet, that is a slippery professional and ethical slope.

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Like everyone else, emergency managers must occasionally pose important questions to themselves (or. at least, to their mirrors) What are the options for suitable alternative opportunities? Would leaving negatively affect those opportunities? Will your continued association with policies with which you disagree, or the behavior of an Administration which you may find abhorrent, irretrievably taint your employment prospects for the future? Do you care?

Some fundamentally good people in the current federal Administration, some of them emergency managers, may be asking themselves those very questions. It soon may be time to for them to come up with answers.