Last weekend, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office opened up about the problems it was having with its telework system—employees were lying about their hours and getting undue bonuses. What can associations do to avoid a similar fate?
Earlier this year, multiple whistleblower complaints at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) prompted an internal investigation of the agency’s telework program. As it turned out, according to a Washington Post report, the program was rampant with fraud—employees were lying about the amount of time they were spending examining patent applications, which led to overtime pay and bonuses for work that wasn’t being done.
On Saturday, USPTO acknowledged the problems it was facing and talked about its plans to address them.
At the end of the day, telework is a function of trust and results.
“When serious concerns such as these are raised, we are committed to addressing them and taking any measures necessary to improve the program’s operations,” USPTO said in a statement, according to the Washington Post. “We have implemented new requirements for all teleworkers and provided new policies for supervisors so they can identify any potential abuse and take appropriate actions. We know that our telework program is too valuable—to the agency and to the American innovators it serves—to accept anything less than its optimal performance.”
The USPTO case raises questions for associations that employ their own telecommuting programs. Specifically, what can they do to prevent something like this happening at their own organizations?
What happened at USPTO was “more a function of management—there clearly were some cracks in the system that allowed for that to happen,” said Lisa Brown Morton, president and CEO of Nonprofit HR. “At the end of the day, telework is a function of trust and results. We really emphasize with our clients the importance of being able to trust that employees are getting the work done. That trust is verified and evidenced by the work that an individual produces.”
Building trust starts at the top, she said. “The CEO or the executive director has to clearly articulate that he or she believes telecommuting can work. Once that green light is given, then it’s up to the human resources or operational staff to put policies and procedures in place to allow for it to happen.”
From there, the human resources or operations department must clearly define the expectations for an employee who teleworks.
“There has to be clear definitions and boundaries for who will telework and who will not and clear rules and understandings about provisions of supplies and equipment,” Morton said. “Organizations need to mitigate their risk by making sure that the workplace or the work environment that the teleworking employee has is safe and consistent with their tolerance for risk, just to make sure that they have a dedicated workspace, and that they’re not working from their bed.”
Beyond that, she said, it’s making sure that the employee is producing the desired results.
“Most professional staff have some expectation, nowadays, for the opportunity to telework,” she said. “It’s difficult to do in a direct-care setting—where you’re delivering services directly to the service recipient—but many other positions can, and increasingly people are expecting that, and not just younger people. So it’s important to have an effective telework program, otherwise you run the risk of being in an uncompetitive position as an employer.”