The Golden Rule: “Obey Now, Grieve Later”

It can be difficult to follow an instruction from a supervisor that an employee strongly believes is incorrect, unwarranted, or not applicable to the duties of his or her assigned position. However, for federal government employees, it is usually best to follow the adage, “Obey now, grieve later.” If a federal government employee does not follow an instruction, direction, or order of a supervisor in his or her chain of command, that employee can be subjected to possible disciplinary action. Charges such as “insubordination,” “failure to follow a direct order,” and “failure to follow instructions” are common charges levied on federal government employees in disciplinary proceedings based on allegations that the employee refused to follow a supervisor’s instruction. Even if the basis for the supervisor’s instruction was completely meritless, an employee can still be subject to discipline for not following the supervisor’s instruction. See AFGE, Local 1367 and Lackland Air Force Base (Fed. Arb. 01/26/2011) (arbitration decision upholding a five-day suspension against an employee who did not follow his supervisor’s instructions due to his belief that the instructions were not in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement or past practices).

Even though employees should not typically refuse to obey instructions, an employee usually can express dissent, in a professional manner, with the instruction and not be subjected to discipline so long as the employee still obeys the instruction. For instance, if a supervisor assigns an employee a work task that would typically be handled by an employee at a higher grade level, the assigned employee may express to the supervisor her belief that the assigned work task is outside of her position description. As long as the employee does not refuse to perform the work task, she should not be disciplined simply for advising the supervisor of her belief.

An exception to the “obey now, grieve later” rule exists with regards to instructions that, if followed, could result in irreparable harm such as imminent physical danger. See Larson v. Dep’t of Army, 91 MSPR 511 (MSPB 2002). However, the vast majority of instructions issued by supervisors are not the kinds of instructions that would lead to irreparable harm. In those instances in which the employee does not have a reasonable safety concern, the “obey now, grieve later” doctrine will typically apply.

Following an instruction that seems wasteful, wrong, or outside the scope of the assigned employee’s duties can understandably be frustrating. However, if an employee follows the “Obey Now, Grieve Later” rule of thumb, the negative consequences are more likely to fall upon the employing Agency instead of the employee. For example, if a supervisor were to instruct an employee to work overtime without corresponding compensation, this can lead to a grievance to recoup the back pay the employee deserves for working the overtime. If an employee is instructed to use annual leave in order to meet with a Union steward when the employee should have been carried in an “official time” status for the meeting, a grievance can be filed to reimburse the employee for the annual leave used. Therefore, in nearly every circumstance, an employee is much better off following the “obey now, grieve later” rule than risking potential discipline for refusing to follow an instruction.

If you have an employment matter and would like to discuss your situation with an attorney, please call the law firm of Bonney, Allenberg, & O’Reilly, P.C. to set up an initial consultation with one of our attorneys.