The State Worker

Chronicling civil-service life for California state workers

October 7, 2008
Blaming the boss

the office.jpgHow much should we blame the managers?

There's always a tendency to read reports like last week's Bureau of State Audits account of improper state employee activity and focus on the workers caught misusing their position or access. But move past that and another theme surfaces -- a failure of state management.

A few examples mentioned in the audit, which you can read by clicking here:

A Department of Justice manager whose failure to track subordinates' work time reporting allowed them to take 727 hours of pay that was "potentially unearned."

An Employment Development Department employee who drank on the job, "and his drinking impeded his ability to perform his duties safely ... his supervisors had been aware of the situation for years."

The supervisors at Housing and Community Development failed either to notice or to act on signs that an employee was absent an estimated 1,200 hours, time she spent working for a nonprofit that gets about 40 percent of its money from HCD. "Through their inaction, HCD's management permitted the employee's improper conduct to occur and continue." Cost to the state: An estimated $34,700 in wages for work that wasn't done.

And in some cases, the boss is the rule breaker, like the CalTrans supervisor who used his state computer to conduct personal business.

There's more, as Bee colleague Andrew McIntosh reported in this story, but you get the idea.

The State Worker fields plenty of comments blasting the boss. Some of the critics contend that if the state upgraded its management corps, many other bureaucratic problems -- inefficiency, low morale, and the like -- would be well on the way to solution.

There is another side to this, however. Managers tell us that it's maddening to supervise people in a system that demands management accountability while undercutting management authority at the same time. Take the guy at EDD with the alcohol problem. His punishment? Two days suspension without pay.

Do what it takes to move out the bad apple and risk that you'll not be backed up, stymied by the rules or blocked by union protections. Leave the bad apple alone and risk rot spreading throughout your unit as your staff questions your dedication, courage, skill or understanding of "what's really going on." Management inaction squashes employee morale, damages management's standing and breeds more bad behavior.

If we're to believe what we hear in letters, e-mails and phone messages from state employees, the BSA's audit is a fleeting glimpse of how workers rip off the state. How much of that happens because bosses aren't watching? Because they're not speaking up? Or is it because the barriers to effective management in today's state bureaucracy in some cases are simply insurmountable?

We're writing about this topic for Thursday's State Worker column in print and online. If you'd like to weigh in, on the record, we'd love to hear from you. Contact us via the e-mail link below or call (916) 321-1043.


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About The State Worker

Jon Ortiz The Author

Jon Ortiz launched The State Worker blog and a companion column in 2008 to cover state government from the perspective of California government employees. Every day he filters the news through a single question: "What does this mean for state workers?" Join Ortiz for updates and debate on state pay, benefits, pensions, contracts and jobs. Contact him at (916) 321-1043 and at


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