Work e-mail can be a Pandora's inbox

The Baltimore Sun

From the mailbag ...

Several readers responded to a recent column that warned against sending pro- or anti-candidate e-mails at work, and it seems that some federal workers are avoiding on-the-job political speech of any kind.

But Brian Shuy, a former U.S. Department of Education employee from Olney, asked whether there was a policy on wearing clothing that could be "remotely seen as political."

"I remember wearing a tie that had elephants on it with their trunks down, which is the opposite of the Republican Party logo. My mother had bought it for me as a gag gift from the Smithsonian. I was asked to remove it because of its political 'tone.'"

That request was far clearer, Shuy said, than the government's policy on e-mail. Only ones directed at the success or failure of a candidate are verboten. For instance, an e-mail supporting the National Rifle Association is permitted.

However, a Social Security Administration employee, who declined to be identified, wrote that he wasn't going to take any chances.

"During the current administration, I have grown increasingly uneasy about politically oriented jokes that are passed on at work by e-mail," he wrote. "Although I don't believe that any of them violate the Hatch Act, freedom of speech is always the first victim of official paranoia. ...

"Although the free expression of my opinion is temporarily limited, common sense and expediency dictate that I accept it and not use this medium - and I have so advised my friends and associates."

Another reader wrote to comment on last week's column on burrowing, a situation in which a political appointee obtains a long-term job in the civil service to stay on for the next administration.

Julia Kirwan, a former budget officer and burrower with the city of Los Angeles, said such transitions aren't inherently bad.

"When we limit the options for our political appointees, we limit the quality of the candidates that we can attract. When an administration ends, it is a painful enough process for staff to deal with the defeat and see their plans and dreams for doing something good end."

Kirwan wrote that people often argue that political appointees "know what they're getting into" or expect their political party to usher them into another job opportunity after defeat.

Kirwan called those opinions "naive."

"Many political appointees are just normal people, dedicated to their work and public service. ... Remember, just because someone is feeding from the public trough, doesn't mean that they aren't a dedicated and hard-working employee ... [or] a worthless burden on the government salary roles. ... I will also give you that there are the political appointees that I wouldn't give you two cents for."


The Office of Personnel Management restored hiring authority this week to an Atlanta-based arm of the Department of Health and Human Services after an audit uncovered unfair hiring practices.

OPM took the "extraordinarily rare" step of denying the unit the ability to hire employees from outside the federal government after discovering widespread "abuse of veterans' preference and some other merit-system principles," said Kevin Mahoney, associate director of human capital leadership and merit system accountability at OPM.

Bill Hall, a spokesman for HHS, said OPM withdrew hiring authority from the agency's Atlanta Human Resources Center in March 2006. The authority was restored Sunday.

During that period, Mahoney said, other HHS divisions took over Atlanta's hiring duties. The agency also operates human resources centers in Baltimore and Rockville, according to the agency's Web site.

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