The tragic events in Arizona have put a new strain on working in congressional offices. Staff and Members view their constituent interactions through a different prism, and have a new awareness of the potential risks posed by public service.
In the last few days CMF has reviewed available research, consulted with experts, and talked with some district and state directors of congressional offices. This is not security guidance. It is management guidance meant to supplement the excellent counsel about safety and security from the institutional offices of the Congress. This is human resources advice – how to manage through a crisis and the concerns that now exist in congressional offices. Here are four things you can do right now to manage during this personal safety crisis:
- Conference Call with Members and Your Families.Consider organizing a conference call between your boss and the families of your staff. While your staff is concerned, your families probably have a different view. As one District Director said, "I get the mission of what I'm doing - my husband only sees the risks." One Member—parent of a young child–had to answer her son's question, "Are you going to get shot too?" This is a very scary time for the extended congressional family, but there is a person on your team who can bring great comfort to them right now: your Member of Congress.
By talking directly to family members, the Member of Congress can personally articulate the importance of security in your office. It sends a powerful message that the leader in the office cares about the people who work for him. Your staff will appreciate both the gesture and the leadership that your Member of Congress can display by taking the time to listen to the staffer families’ concerns and communicating how she will help.
- Over-Communicate.While your office and staffers may not have been physically affected during the recent events, it has sent feelings of concern throughout the Congressional family. Information is flowing and changing rapidly, events are in flux (like the House floor schedule), and people are feeling as though they don’t have control. After situations such as the recent events occur, employees are often asked how they felt, and the most common reply is: “I didn’t know what was going on.”
Over the next few days we recommend that you convene short daily meetings with your staffs. This is both to provide you with a forum to communicate important information but also to give staff a license and opportunity to raise concerns. Forward any relevant email from leadership and institutional offices that is not restricted. If you see an individual exhibiting signs or stress or fear, invite them in to talk.
- Outline the Rules and Conduct Training for Dealing with Difficult Constituents. Every congressional office interacts with – and is sometimes accosted by – difficult constituents. They can be angry with legislative action taken (or not) by the Congress, they can be upset with a federal agency regarding casework, or they can be genuinely mentally ill individuals. Ironically, those on the frontlines and on the phones in congressional offices are often the least trained or newest, making the challenge of interacting with these constituents even more difficult.
Take the time to train all staff on how to deal with difficult constituents. (To aid in this effort, here is a link to a great publication by the California Psychological Association, “ A Legislator’s Guide: Communicating with Distressed Constituents” (418 KB). Occasionally a constituent will become belligerent, swear, and hurl derogatory epithets. Give clear guidance to staff on what they have to tolerate, and what they don’t. Also offer tips on warning signs that the constituent may be a threat to the Member or staffer.
- Don’t Forget the Interns. If you think you and your staff are confused, just think how college students feel. Spend extra time with interns. Include them in all email and discussions. And perhaps contact their parents, either individually or through a conference call, to explain to them how your office is helping to enhance their personal safety.