If You Can’t Walk Your Own Dog …Get a Fish

Αlpha rants —

@ secretary is routinely tasked with walking the Ambassador’s dog after office hours; feel sorry for the individual; no one speaks up; what kind of leadership does this sends to lower-rank employees?

I got this a while back and my first thoughts — since it is beyond official hours, Uncle Sam probably would not complain. But — just because you can ask, does that mean you should?

From the perspective of a busy ambassador or a senior official pressed for time — perhaps you’d think “what’s the problem with asking?” Your secretary is free to say “yes or no,” and that would be all right, too. If he/she were to say “no,” you’d just find someone else to walk the dog, or pick up a gift for the spouse, etc., etc. No big deal, right?

But from the perspective of the secretary, a subordinate who reports to the senior official–he/she might be unable to say “no” out of fear of getting on the boss’ bad side or of getting a poor performance review. When a subordinate says “yes” in a working relationship where there is unequal power — that is a big deal. How can one be sure that the “yes” is really offered freely on cases like this, even when the request is put oh, ever so nicely?

The other thing I find troubling about this is the presumption on the part of the senior officer that the lower rank secretary has no life after work or that he/she would be willing to do the chore for nothing (out of the goodness of his/her heart perhaps?). And even if he/she is absolutely willing to walk the dog, for nothing or for a minimal token, wouldn’t this be considered gifting in kind to a superior officer, and would still be improper?

In any case, I finally got around to digging the
relevant sections on the use of public office for private gain, the use of official time and use of subordinate’s time from 5 C.F.R. PART 2635 (Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch):

§ 2635.702 : Use of public office for private gain.

An employee shall not use his public office for his own private gain, for the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise, or for the private gain of friends, relatives, or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity, including nonprofit organizations of which the employee is an officer or member, and persons with whom the employee has or seeks employment or business relations. The specific prohibitions set forth in paragraphs (a) through (d) of this section apply this general standard, but are not intended to be exclusive or to limit the application of this section.

(a) Inducement or coercion of benefits. An employee shall not use or permit the use of his Government position or title or any authority associated with his public office in a manner that is intended to coerce or induce another person, including a subordinate, to provide any benefit, financial or otherwise, to himself or to friends, relatives, or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity.

§ 2635.705 : Use of official time. (a) Use of an employee’s own time.

Unless authorized in accordance with law or regulations to use such time for other purposes, an employee shall use official time in an honest effort to perform official duties. An employee not under a leave system, including a Presidential appointee exempted under 5 U.S.C. 6301(2), has an obligation to expend an honest effort and a reasonable proportion of his time in the performance of official duties.

(b) Use of a subordinate’s time. An employee shall not encourage, direct, coerce, or request a subordinate to use official time to perform activities other than those required in the performance of official duties or authorized in accordance with law or regulation.

Here is a comparative example provided:

Example 1: An employee of the Department of Housing and Urban Development may not ask his secretary to type his personal correspondence during duty hours. Further, directing or coercing a subordinate to perform such activities during nonduty hours constitutes an improper use of public office for private gain in violation of § 2635.702(a). Where the arrangement is entirely voluntary and appropriate compensation is paid, the secretary may type the correspondence at home on her own time. Where the compensation is not adequate, however, the arrangement would involve a gift to the superior in violation of the standards in subpart C of this part (Subpart C – Gifts Between Employees).

It turns out I was wrong on my initial thoughts on this. Uncle Sam would not like it either if the secretary is walking the dog after duty-hours, if he/she is doing so without “adequate” compensation. I am presuming that “adequate” here means the normal wage rate that the individual concerned earns during office hours (approximately $15-$23/hour).

Besides the ethical issues here, things like these have unavoidable impact on morale and life within the organization. Folks won’t complain not just out of fear of retaliation, but also because in a small world like this – their next dream assignment could hinge on the same person they may not want to be around with again. The impacted individual could simply sucked it up, waiting for his/her normal reassignment to another part of the world, hoping all the while that the next boss has a low maintenance turtle and no kangaroos in his/her backyard. The truth of the matter is — when asking a subordinate to walk the dog after duty hours – the “no big deal” is really a big deal.

It seems to me that there is an easy solution to this — if you can’t walk your own dog, get a fish.

Related Item:

5 C.F.R. PART 2635
Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch

DOS – Office of the Inspector General – Hotline
(email and phone info)

Office of Government Ethics
(email and phone info)