Congratulations – You’re Non-Essential

Paul Hebert Communication, Current Affairs, Employee Engagement, Employee Relations, Engagement and Satisfaction, HR, Paul Hebert, politics

Other than the people who are actually responsible for it, some federal employees are being forced to stay home as the US government goes into shutdown mode.

It started yesterday and like organ failure, will ripple through the halls of federal buildings as government employees begin the process of taking that long awaited unplanned vacation. I’m guessing the two NASA astronauts on the International Space Station (yep – they are government employees) are watching this whole thing pretty closely since many of their support staff down at Mission Control were “furloughed.”  I might be looking for a new ride home if I were them.

Not to worry though – we have plenty of practice with government shutdowns – this is the 18th shutdown since 1977 (do the math – that’s about one every two years.)

But my concern isn’t for the government in general – or the citizenry (which based on my twitter feed seem pretty happy about the shutdown.)  I’m worried about some of the employees.

You know who I’m talking about – the, ahem, 800,000 non-essentials.

The Non-E’s.

Non-Essential Need Not Apply

Being a student of employee engagement and motivation I have to say I find that term a bit off-putting. In today’s world of hypersensitivity it seems that we need to really think about what calling someone non-essential will do to their self-esteem.  While we may litter our Facebook streams with rants on whom we feel is non-essential in Washington and the government in general, it is much different when you are labeled as such in the press and on the nightly news. (We still have nightly news right?  At 6 and 11? Just checking.)

Having to go home and tell your kids, or your wife or significant other that you’ll be hanging around in pajamas for a few days (hopefully only a few) because you’re non-essential can’t be much fun.  You’d be happier if you got laid off and could collect unemployment insurance while you look for a new job where you could be “essential” again.  No – you have to sit there and take it.  Knowing that every time you go to the store during working hours the cashiers will be whispering behind your back – “There goes Joe – did you hear?  He’s a non-essential.”

I feel your pain brother/sister.  I truly do think it would be better to be fired – to have the Band-Aid pulled off quickly, than to live forever with the scarlet “N” on your chest.

Old Wine – New Bottles

To address this issue some have gone the route of relabeling – instead of non-essential you are now “non-excepted.”  That rolls off the tongue no?  If you’re essential you’re “excepted” if you’re nonessential you’re “non-excepted.”

Seems to be pretty much the same thing in my mind.

Tomato – Tomahto.


While I think the majority of adults know that the term non-essential (or non-excepted) doesn’t really mean what it sounds like, it is still a bitter pill to swallow.  To know that when push comes to shove you’ll be the first to be eaten in the mountains of the Andes after the plane crash can’t be good for your ego.

And managers of these non-essentials will be dealing with this issue for a while to come.

Regardless of how long the furlough is for “non-essential” employees, the damage will have been done the day their boss tells says to them “good news – you can set your alarm later than normal tomorrow.”

How do you recover from that?  How do you, as a manager, get your team to dig deep and give their 100% plus each day?

How do you get discretionary effort from someone who was deemed “non-essential?”

Maybe you don’t.  Maybe you just live with it and move on knowing that sometimes a job is just a job and in good times you have it and in bad times you don’t.

Lessons Learned

I personally think the key here is to have a very, very firm handle on how you and your employees add value to the firm.

How do you and your staff impact the mission of the organization?  Without a direct line of sight to important organizational outcomes it will be impossible to bolster morale and get your team back on track.

I don’t envy the government managers who have to deal with this in a few days/weeks/months – they will have a tough challenge re-engaging their employees – making them feel essential – making them feel “excepted” – making them feel important.

There aren’t enough gift cards, logo-identified swag or free pizza to make up for being labeled a Non-E.