Legal Insider: The dos and don’ts for federal employees

This is a sponsored column by attorneys John Berry and Kimberly Berry of Berry & Berry, PLLC, an employment and labor law firm located in Northern Virginia that specializes in federal employee, security clearance, retirement and private sector employee matters.

By John V. Berry, Esq.

At Berry & Berry, we represent many federal employees in the workplace, including defending federal employees against proposed disciplinary actions. Despite the common belief that it’s hard to discipline or terminate a federal employee, federal employees do face discipline and termination.

We have summarized below some of the most frequent issues that federal employees encounter and provide some general tips regarding how to avoid these potential problems:

Don’t surf the internet at work for personal use. While many federal agencies are somewhat relaxed in their enforcement of internet policies, it’s important to avoid using the internet for personal use while at work. We have represented many federal employees who are investigated for either inappropriate use of the internet (accessing inappropriate sites) or for too much personal internet use.

Often, we defend federal employees who have used the internet to watch Netflix, check their banking accounts or purchase items on eBay. Keep in mind that, if an agency wants, it can check the websites a government employee has been accessing and determine the amount of internet usage.

Don’t use government email for personal use. Always use your personal email account for personal email correspondence. We have represented a number of federal employees who have been proposed for discipline due to misuse of their official government email account. Sometimes the federal employee’s issues involve using government email for personal use or sending inappropriate correspondence or photos. In addition, avoid using famous quotations or sayings, like inserting a famous quotation below your signature block, when corresponding using your government email account.

Don’t use government credit cards for personal use. We have represented many federal employees who have mistakenly or innocently used their government credit card for personal charges. Not only are many federal employees disciplined or terminated for such misuse, but they can also be forced to repay the funds inappropriately charged to their government credit card. Even if policies on credit card usage are not apparently enforced, do not use a government credit card for personal use under any circumstances.

Do properly account for time at work. We often handle issues involving a federal employee leaving early or arriving to work late — even by 15 or 20 minutes — and without adjusting his or her time records accordingly. The federal employee then gets paid for a full work day. Generally, this is not an issue until a personality conflict arises, which causes scrutiny or an investigation. However, when a time issue does arise, it can result in a time and attendance disciplinary case, along with forced repayment of funds to the government.

Do take performance improvement plans seriously. Most performance improvement plans (PIPs) are designed by federal agencies to facilitate the termination of an employee, rather than to help the employee improve work performance. A PIP is almost always used by management to demonstrate the government’s interest or steps it has taken to help an employee improve his or her performance. However, this is typically not the case. A PIP is almost always a pre-planned attempt to terminate a federal employee despite assertions to the contrary.

Do avoid disagreements with supervisors. Arguments between a supervisor and his or her subordinate often leads to the supervisor disliking the subordinate, which may cause the supervisor to thereafter scrutinize the employee for any potential misconduct. If there are any such arguments, it’s wise to attempt to resolve any personality or other conflicts before they develop into a future misconduct or performance case.

While many of these tips may seem like common sense, many federal employees become less cautious in the workplace when federal agencies don’t enforce the rules involving time and attendance, and internet, personal email and credit card use. However, violations are typically investigated when a supervisor has a disagreement with or dislikes a subordinate. Hence, it is always best to err on the side of caution and observe the above tips in the federal workplace.

Our law firm represents and advises employees on security clearance matters nationwide. If you need legal assistance, please contact our office at 703-668-0070 or at to schedule a consultation.

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