I mentioned in a previous post that I was going to do some Friday Questions, and there is a really persistent question that people in non-managerial positions have trouble wrapping their heads around. In the shortest form, someone wants to go on an assignment, and their boss said no. They think it’s mean of their boss, and they want to know why the person is such a jerk. Even some inexperienced managers frequently want to say, “Well, of course, you should say yes. Holding people back is just short-sighted”.
If that is your frame, it DOES appear to be mean or short-sighted. So let’s look at why.
In short, within the public service, you occupy a “box”. It is a specific box, with a specific level and classification, let’s say PM-02. There’s an actual position number for that box, you get a letter of offer that appoints you to that box, and it comes with a job description of what you will be doing (albeit often a very generic one). That box is what you have been hired to do, and let’s make it simple and assume you’re in an indeterminate/permanent position (not casual or term, etc.).
An assignment would say that you, as the Employee who works for Manager A, are authorized to go and work for Manager B for a set duration of time. Note that this is not Manager B offering you a full job, they’re not appointing you to anything, they’re just signing an agreement between you and the two managers to say, “Instead of Jane coming in to do the PM-02 job with Manager A, she’s going to come over and work for Manager B in this other job, and when the time is up, officially she will return to her original position with Manager A.” If you want to make it seem the simplest, Manager A is LOANING the employee to Manager B, and in return, Manager B agrees to cover all the salary costs, etc. But the employee is still in the PM-02 box in Manager A’s team, she’s just going to be working elsewhere for a while.
You likely already see some of the variables in there that start to make this look a little complicated. The Employee is still technically working in the original position, there’s a temporary assignment agreement which allows her to work for Manager B without quitting her first job. And in the end, she comes back.
The arguments for all types of assignments are almost always the same. The other manager has a temporary need, and the employee would seem to meet it hence the offer to do the assignment, the employee will get some career development experience out of it, and the original manager will / may / could get a better employee back when it’s over. Win-win-win, right? Not quite.
But the most important variable in there for an assignment is that the original manager HAS TO APPROVE. If I offer you a full position, and you are leaving the old box and coming to work for me, that other manager has no say in your labour mobility. But, if I’m offering you an assignment, it’s temporary, and in the end, you don’t want to be out of a job, so your other manager has to agree to let you leave and go back when it’s done. They have to agree to loan you out.
Before getting into some of the pluses and minuses, let me start by differentiating between three types of assignment scenarios, as they will often affect how the manager feels about the assignment.
In Scenario Alpha, you are being offered an acting assignment within the same team, filling in for someone who is off on personal leave for four months. They were a PM-03, you will get a temporary raise to do the PM-03 job. You’re still working for manager A in either box.
In Scenario Beta One, someone else in the same department or branch has an opening, and needs a PM-02 to come over and help out with a special project for six months (an assignment at level). It is a different manager for the other area. Beta Two would be if it was a PM-03 position (a temporary acting assignment).
In Scenario Charlie, someone at another department wants to bring you over for four months, either as PM-02 or PM-03, it doesn’t matter much which, and obviously, it will be a totally different manager.
A manager’s job isn’t simply to say yes to everything
I should start by noting that I am a huge supporter of assignment opportunities and career development. I love the idea, if I can say yes, I will, and godspeed to the employee. But my job as a manager is not simply to say yes to everything. There are legitimate constraints to my job too. I have a job description. I have a boss. I have things that I am expected to deliver.
We often get tied up in thinking, “Well, everyone works for the same employer, the Government of Canada, so we’ll just say yes to working wherever there’s a need.” Easy peasy lemon squeezy. But let me give you some examples where it will be more obvious that I might not be able to say yes.
Let’s say, for example, that I work in an area responsible for passports. It has been in the news regularly, there are backlogs, lots of bad press, and lots of frustration. Suppose I run a small team of 10 people, and my key performance indicators are to process 100 passports a day with my team of 10. Trying to keep the numbers simple and obvious.
Everyone needs to do ten a day. But one of my ten staff has aging parents and has requested to take leave to care for them. They’re leaving next month for a year. So I’ll be down to nine. On any given day, absenteeism might be anywhere from 4 to 12%, so over the course of a week, I’m looking at three absences in total for a day each. That might be leave for vacation, family, illness, or whatever. It doesn’t matter, they’re not there. I have 50 person days to do the work in a week, 500 passports. I’ll be down to 45 when the person takes a year off, I am down to 42 with regular absences. If you leave for 4m, I might not be able to find a replacement right away, or at all. And perhaps I know that two more of my staff are in competitions and might compete out and leave within three months. So by the end of your proposed assignment, I might be temporarily down to seven staff not including you, or another ten person days lost. That takes me to 32 person days for the week. If the team has to do 500 passports a week, instead of ten passports a day, I now need them to do 15 a day to cover the likely churn. If I approve you to go off on leave, that number will rise to 18-19 per day. Almost double the workload for the people remaining. And maybe I also know that right now, it is REALLY hard to find anyone to work on passports, we’ve tapped every resource we have for months.
Is that your problem? Of course not. But it IS my problem as manager. I have obligations to meet. My job is to deliver 100 passports a day with my team, in addition to helping them develop for the future, etc. And because I am responsible for training and development too, you want me to agree to give you up to go work somewhere else for 4m? A better question is why I would even consider agreeing to it since if you leave, we can’t meet our existing operational requirements. You know, the ones you were actually hired to do.
Before I talk about the type of assignment and how I’ll react officially, let me give you an extended metaphor to understand that “loaned” employee a little better. Let’s instead of having government employees, let’s assume you work for McDonald’s. All part of the big corporate empire, but with various locations. Manager A is running a McDonald’s in the East End of the city, Manager B is running one in the West End. Manager B has an employee leaving for four months to care for aging parents, they’re screwed, but they see that you have a good worker who could fill in, so they want to borrow them for the four months. If I have a full-staff complement, I’m probably okay with that. If I’m down staff myself, I’m NOT going to be okay with that. If I’m screwed, I’m not going to say yes.
Almost every employer has a similar variation. Great ideas running up against operational requirements. If you prefer a financial metaphor, it’s a lot like having a limited budget with multiple investment opportunities. I would love to do them ALL, but I can’t afford all of them at once. And if I’m broke, I can’t afford ANY of them.
So, my first question as a manager is, basically, if I say yes to this assignment, can I still meet my operational requirements? Many times, that answer will be yes. No problem, and it’s easy to say yes. If I’m fully staffed or I’m entering a quiet period or I’ve got good replacement options, then sure, an assignment is easy to say yes to. But, sometimes, I’ll even say yes when the original question wasn’t positively resolved. Sure, some managers might be jerks and say no just cuz it is more difficult for them, but the majority will say yes if they can find ways to be a bit creative and permit them to go.
Scenario Alpha — Acting in the same area
If I have an opening in my team, and I think you can do it, I’ll likely consider you first. It may not be the perfect solution, maybe I’d rather bring in another body than move you over, or maybe I think you’re not quite ready to do the big job, or maybe I’ll have trouble replacing you in the old position, etc. But as painful as it might be for operations, if you’re in either my own team or working for the same Directorate, well, I’m probably willing to suffer a bit more pain. If the other area and I have the same Director, and everyone thinks it’ll work, I’ll likely fold and do the assignment.
Scenario Beta One — At level, in the same department
So suppose you have an opportunity to go work on a special project in the same department. Well, I’m likely to get my arm twisted by other management. Unless I am absolutely going to miss some deliverables, I’m going to be told as a manager to suck it up, buttercup and let them do it. This would be like the McDonald’s scenario. Someone above may say, “Figure it out, make it happen”.
Scenario Beta Two — Acting at a higher level, in the same department
If it’s a temporary promotion, I won’t just get my arm twisted by management, I’ll have HR, and potentially even labour relations, twisting my arm too. More so than at level, I would be expected as a manager to take on potentially more pain if it’s a promotion situation
Scenario Charlie — At another department
This is where the metaphor about McDonald’s starts to really show the challenges. I might be willing to take a hit on my deliverables if it helps someone in my area. I’ll take a hit if it’s within the department even, and others will encourage me to be as flexible as I can be. But across departments? That’s almost the equivalent of a Burger King wanting to borrow my employee.
Why don’t I just hire someone else while you’re gone?
I probably can’t. I have a budget, I have boxes, I have limitations. I can’t just hire anyone anytime I want. There are basic constraints. And the reality is that while you’re “gone” on your temporary assignment, I can’t replace you with anyone permanent. You get to keep your box so that it is there when the assignment ends and you come back. It isn’t just that I’m “loaning” you to go on assignment, it’s that I’m guaranteeing to hold your job while you’re gone.
Let’s look at a frequent scenario. Jane in the other area is going to take care of her parents, she’ll be off for four months. Did they know this was going to happen? Nope. So they looked around, did some sort of process, found you, and bang, they’re willing to offer you an assignment for four months while Jane is gone. You want to do it, they want you. And when do they want you to start? Next week.
So now I’m going to be down an employee next week. Maybe it will take me two weeks to find someone who is willing to come work for my team. Assuming I can get the paperwork through, and their boss agrees, I can only offer that person a three-month assignment. Because it took a month, there are only three months left, and then you’ll be back, and I won’t have a position open anymore. I only have the opening while you’re gone. Will people be willing to come for only three months? I don’t know. Maybe. Will I need to train them? What if it takes people a full month to learn the job? I’ll really only have them for two months.
As a manager, an assignment out can really mess with my staffing. Experienced managers who have gone through this before have ways to mitigate against it. They often work with their bosses to agree to double-banking positions temporarily…if it takes me two months to replace you, then I save two months’ salary. Perhaps I can still hire the new person for four months, and I’ll just have an extra body overlapping for two months when you return.
A related variable in there is what kind of work we are doing. Is it highly specialized, or is it relatively generic? Can I hire and train them if they have any experience or do I really need to search long and hard to find a technical expert for the position? Is it an area people WANT to work in, and staffing is often easy? Or is it an area that isn’t the most exciting, maybe a bit too process-heavy, and it’s hard to find people willing to do the work?
If my operational requirements are not pressing, I can probably manage all that. If I’m delivering passports, and we’re in the news every day with bad press, I will not be looking for ways to help out a manager somewhere else until our work life returns to normal. I simply can’t do it.
The decision may not be mine
Let me take an example of processing fishing licences. Obviously, there will be a peak just as fishing season opens. Or taxes and coming up on tax filing season. There are lots of examples where departments have peak periods. And the simple reality is that MANY of them have sporadic or standing rules — no assignments during peak periods. No extended vacation leave during tax season unless pre-approved months in advance. Operational requirements are just too high right then. So the org passes a rule.
There might be SOME discretion, but often there isn’t. While I might be normally the one who could say yes or no, it’s quite possible someone has just decreed “no”. When DRAP hit back in the early 2010s, the first thing that happened was that all casuals were cancelled, terms were reviewed and many ended, and all assignments “in” were cancelled, with everyone sent back to their home departments. And while DRAP was underway, NOBODY was approving assignments without a lot of careful review and planning.
Separate from blanket denials, even if I want to approve an assignment out, I am probably going to have to talk about it with my boss. Depending on how many staff I have, the size of the organization, how much delegated authority I have, etc., I’ll likely discuss it. And the very first question from them will be, “Can you still make all your deliverables? What happens when it’s over? Can you get anyone in while they’re gone?”.
Everyone already assumes the assignment is a good thing. They don’t need to ask what the benefits are, everyone knows that argument. The question comes to, “Are you sure we can afford to say yes and still meet the deliverables we’re responsible for?”. Because, as I noted, our job is to deliver what our job requires. It isn’t simply to manage training and development or to give people whatever they ask for. It’s great for morale, but managers actually have to manage the resources they’re responsible for managing. And that includes stewardship of HR resources too.
But you’re blocking a development opportunity!
It’s a popular refrain, but it’s complete bullshit. I’m not blocking anything.
Here’s what is REALLY happening. The other manager has a problem. They’re short a staff member. They have a “risk” in their organization that they won’t be able to deliver on the commitments of their team. So, they looked around and found a way to mitigate that. They offered someone a temporary assignment to fill their need. Does it work for that manager? Perfectly. They get to solve their problem with NO real commitment on their part. When the assignment is over, they send the person back. If it isn’t working out, they send the person back. If the employee who is being replaced comes back early, they send the person back. If they have a budget cut, they send the person back. If they find someone they like better, they can send the person back. They have NO commitment to the employee who comes in. They don’t have to give them anything other than an opportunity for the first day. After that, the other manager can end the assignment for ANY reason, including NO reason, anytime they want. Whatever risk they had? It’s entirely transferred to someone else.
Part of that risk transfers to the employee. You. You’re going to go on assignment, hoping everything will be great, but the first sign of any sort of problem, they can cut you loose and send you back. No discussion, no labour relations considerations, you’re just done. Because you don’t work for them. You work for me. I just loaned you to them. And like a library book, they can return you any time they feel like it. Now, in your defence, you can also end it anytime for any reason. Your new boss turns out to be a jerk? Cancel the assignment and go back to your regular job. That’s what the guarantee from me is for, so that you’re entirely protected if it doesn’t work out. So you’re assuming most of the HR risk. If you don’t think there’s any “career” risk, think of a scenario where you get this great opportunity in this other area, you go there on assignment, and you find out that there’s another PM-02 who resents you being there, there’s a bit of conflict, and the manager says “See ya later.” If you were a full employee of theirs, they’d work it out; since you don’t belong to them, it’s easy to say, “Sorry / not sorry”. What would that look like to you, how would it feel when you went off on a great assignment, they kept you for two weeks and then said, “Nope sorry, not working out” and sent you back with your tail between your legs? All of your colleagues see you leave and come back; your manager sees you trying this other position and getting sent back, like a potential failure; the other area probably writes you off for future opportunities, too. Definitely NOT a great career experience.
The rest of that risk from the other manager? It comes to me. They had a gap and filled it with an employee from my team, so now I have a gap. Everything was working just fine in my team, I was fully staffed, and then suddenly, because someone ELSE had a gap, all their risk has been transferred to MY team. Assuming I agree to the loan. And if I do loan you, and put in place a good replacement option, and do everything right that I need to do myself, maybe even hire someone to work for four months to replace you, what happens when the other group suddenly ends things early and sends you back? I have to then cancel the person I hired, and mess up their career plans too. Again, not because of anything I did, but because another manager is smacking me with their problem.
Now, here’s the rub. I have to AGREE to that loan, for it to happen, but you’re really asking me if I’ll take on that added risk while you’re gone AND give you a guaranteed job if / when you’re coming back. But if I say no, am I blocking an opportunity?
Actually, no. Because there is a totally different way to do it that gives me NO risk, transfers NO risk to me or you, and the original manager can do all of it on their own. They can deploy you as a PM-02. They can make you the offer to go work for them 100%, full employee with full commitment as part of their team. And if they then want to offer you an acting assignment, that’s entirely up to them. If they have a risk of having too many employees, that’s their risk, they can manage it.
In contrast to an assignment, I have no say whatsoever if you deploy. They make you an offer, you accept, all good. You go off, and I’ll even throw you a going away party with congratulations on your new opportunity. I’ll even be flexible on your start date. If this is what you want, great. Off you go with thanks and best wishes. Then I, as manager of my area, have to replace you, but I can offer someone a FULL job / position, I don’t have to limit it to four months or anything. Because you’re gone from my box.
I’m not saying NO to your opportunity. That’s easily overridden. What I’m considering is whether to guarantee your job while I take on some other manager’s risk that has nothing to do with my area. Can I do it and STILL deliver on my job?
Two hidden variables and a hidden HR risk
Within all of this, there are some other elements that rarely get talked about by managers. The first is “What is the intent of the assignment?”.
I mentioned above the various other aspects of an assignment, but there are often different intents too. I assumed throughout most of the discussion above that it is just a simple development experience. You go off, get the experience, and come back. But to be blunt, coming back is rarely the goal. Most people who do acting assignments (temporary promotions) aren’t hoping to come back. They’re hoping to get promoted to the new position and stay there or somewhere similar. It’s not really a temporary out and back, it’s a planned departure with a fall-back net.
Equally, many managers offering assignments are really trying to either speed up a staffing process OR test out the employee. So, for example, if I have an EC-05 box to fill, and I find someone who seems good but doesn’t have much direct experience, I could theoretically offer them a six-month assignment first. If it works out and I like them, I could offer them a full deployment. It’s like leasing the employee with an option to buy. Or maybe I’ve got a brand new project, and new funding, but I don’t have all the HR boxes in place yet, so if I have to wait for HR to catch up, it will be three months before I can get a body. But if I take you on an assignment, I can have you start tomorrow. All I have to do is have your boss agree, and we exchange some paperwork. I need the budget to pay you, but I don’t even need a box for you. Because you’re still in your own box in that other manager’s division.
If another manager calls me and says, “Look, I need them to start immediately, but I can’t deploy them yet because of boxes and HR, can we start with an assignment?”, I’m going to say yes (assuming I’m allowed to by the department’s rules). It’s not really an assignment, it’s a deployment with slow paperwork. So I have no real say in their departure, they’re really leaving permanently, it’s just a question of timing. In that scenario, I’m likely to say yes and take any hit that goes with it. Partly because I can likely go ahead and staff a full replacement for you, assuming I trust that the other manager knows what they’re doing. I’ll come back to that in a minute.
The second variable in there is highly related. What is the reason the other manager isn’t doing the full deployment right away? Is it a “test” situation? Are they waiting for funding approval? Are they simply incompetent and haven’t done their HR yet?
Because there is a hidden HR risk that we NEVER talk about as managers.
That same duty that people want to extol for me to grant the opportunity may be the same duty that stops me from doing so. Because, as your manager, I also have a duty to make sure you understand the implications of what you’re being offered versus what the other person might be telling you. I have a duty to help you make informed decisions on your career. You can choose not to listen to me, you can ignore what I say, you can disagree with me when I tell you some risks, but I can’t simply abdicate my duty and let some other manager potentially screw you over.
Protecting the employee
While I have this duty, it is entirely discharged by telling you some of the hidden risks with an assignment. It is your career, your decision. But I do need to make sure you understand that if a manager is not deploying you, regardless of all other lovely words, there is a risk that you are assuming by going on assignment. It’s the same risk that all the flowery words in the world don’t add up to an actual letter of offer.
I mentioned above the obvious risk that they may decide that you are not the right fit, and cancel with zero notice. All assignments carry that risk. Do you want to know the weird part? Managers and employees regularly sign these agreements without understanding what they are signing.
Suppose it says you will work for Manager B for a year. And suppose Manager B plans to deploy you. The agreement does NOT guarantee anywhere that they will do that. There’s no timeline involved or commitment at all. The only thing the assignment guarantees is that you can work there as long as all three parties continue to agree. The timeline is NOT a contract. I know managers who were surprised when an employee “bounced” back after two months despite a one-year agreement. They thought it was binding, as did the employee. Nope, it’s an arrangement.
I know other managers who have staffed a position because the person wasn’t coming back. And then they did, and suddenly it’s a mess in the old division. People reassigned files, things have shifted around, there are new bodies involved, and you’re in the middle of it. Sure, you can have your job back, but none of you are going to be happy.
Not to mention that you likely left for a reason, and it wasn’t just a better opportunity. Some of it was likely boredom with your old job. Maybe it was a possible promotion. But now you’re back home in the old job, often embarrassed and ticked off at the manager who sent you back. It’s not a great mindset or experience for anyone, but particularly you. You need to know these risks going in.
Lots of other things can happen too. For example, it’s not uncommon for you to go work for Manager B, and three months later, they leave for a new job. So you have manager B2 now, and they aren’t as excited about your work in the team as B1. And in fact, they’re not so sure that deployment is the best way forward. Maybe they’ll just let you do your year and then, when the agreement expires, send you back.
Or there’s a change in direction at the other area, you’re not a full employee, so when they reassign a bunch of files, you end up with the leftovers that nobody else wanted because they actually work there while you’re just on loan. Or there’s a great training opportunity, so they send someone else who is an employee of that unit, not the “loaner”.
Until the other organization fully commits to you and appoints you permanently, many employees feel that they are treated like second-class citizens.
A popular mitigation strategy that some managers suggest is that an assignment should never be longer than six months. If you go to work for them for two months, and they want to keep you, they then have four months to make it happen. Or maybe it’s three months of probation and three months to action an appointment. Anything longer and they’re just playing with you. I’m not going to be excited to take on another manager’s risk if the real reason they haven’t staffed properly is they don’t know what they’re doing.
Other times, employees have been promised language training or some other benefit, yet when they got there, nope. Not approved. Another employee that I worked with went on assignment to another branch, and they did five years of one-year assignments with extensions, and after five years (and yes, the original manager was able to agree to let them stay “out”), they sent him back. FIVE years later. That was just a crapfest. But he was willing to sign one-year commitments at a time, so all good, I guess.
I know a couple of fairly decent senior management types who have managed dozens of assignments both in and out and they have a set of general principles for all proposed assignments:
a. Does the employee understand the risks?
b. Does the employee have a game plan if it goes the right way AND the wrong way?
c. What is the intent of the assignment? Temporary, acting, probation, etc.
d. Can we meet operational requirements while they’re gone? Are there any overriding rules that block assignments?
e. Can we mitigate any residual risks?
f. Is the employee 100% sure they understand ALL the risks?
Because I’ve been around the block a few times, I generally do NOT propose assignments IN for my team. I’ll approve them OUT as much as I can, and I’ll push the employee to be fully informed for any proposal they get. A couple of times, with a bit of finesse and guile, the employee and I turned an assignment option into a full deployment offer instead, which is what they really wanted. Recently, a junior colleague leveraged a full offer instead of a simple one-year assignment to start, no help from me at all, so all the credit is with her. With a seller’s market at the moment, many assignments can be leveraged that way.
But I don’t like doing them into my team because I don’t think it’s a good deal for the employee nor do I like screwing some other manager by giving them my risk. If I find an employee that I want, I take the risk and offer them a full position. If it turns out it’s a bad fit, that’s my job to manage. Not to send them back like a library book I didn’t enjoy. It’s just a bad model. I love the potential for assignments, when they’re designed right and managed carefully, and I will approve whenever I can, as long as the employee understands the risks.
Yet as a manager, sometimes I have to say no to an assignment. If they still want to do it, they can do it another way without my needing to approve anything, and that model is likely to be better for the employee anyway. It’s not always a good idea to give another manager a way to screw over one of your employees just because it’s easy.
Saying no is never popular, yet sometimes it’s not only the right decision, but it’s also the only decision.