Weeknotes #7: July 6–10, 2020

This week I was “Acting” for my Manager, and tried to work on a performance plan for a member of my team. Coming from the private sector, this week had a lot of surprises….

It’s not uncommon in the private sector for people to question the importance of job titles. But in the government, job classifications really matter.

People are often referred to by their occupational group and level: “We’re hiring an EC-05”, “We need to run this by the CS-04s”. But these job classifications don’t really describe what a person does. This is particularly obvious when it comes to more modern roles like product manager or UX designer. I know of UXers who were hired under the following job classifications:

  • Computer Systems (CS)
  • Economics and Social Sciences Services (EC)
  • Administrative Services (AS)
  • Services and Programs (SP)

Then beyond the specific occupational group, there are levels. I was hired as a CS-03 (Team Leader, Application Development), which means there are particular competencies and key activities I’m expected to do. Now, don’t be thinking these are UX-specific activities! Instead, there are some competencies and activities that are expected of everyone at this level in this occupational group.

In the private sector, I had some wonderful managers who I’d work with to establish goals to “get me to the next level”. We’d talk about how I wanted to grow, and then identify steps to track my progress. If you met the goals set out, you could expect to be promoted. It .. made sense to me.

Things seem different in the public sector… and I want to say that if I misspeak here at all, I welcome corrections and will gladly change this post.

First off, there doesn’t seem to be the same sense of teams here. You don’t hire someone and expect them to grow and develop on your team, while the team levels up and becomes more advanced.

Instead, it seems more like a project team is structured around the nature of the activities you want people to do, and then you swap out the people to perform the tasks over time. If a team says it needs an AS-03, and the person occupying that position wants to advance, they may have to leave the team to do so. As a result it seems you lose the hard-workers who advance out of the team, and you have to backfill (and train) people to keep doing the same work someone was doing before.

Although I find this very strange, it also makes some sense to me from a “government” standpoint. It is a structure built for consistency and stability. It is resilient. But it also means you may be holding onto outdated roles or tasks simply because they were deemed needed at some point.

If I think about some of the best co-workers I’ve had in the past, they were people willing to step outside their current job description. They wanted to try something new, they demonstrated an interest and potential, and were able to find new opportunities within the organization. Specifically, when I staffed my innovation team, I hired an inside sales guy to be my researcher. Honestly, we kinda created the role for him. He was a really smart, talented person and we knew he had more to offer the company than handling incoming sales calls. We saw him for the person he was, and provided him with the opportunity to flourish. (Three years later he’s fully moved into a product manager position and has also been a TA for a product management online school).

I bring this up because this week we were talking about performance plans at work. I met with someone on my team and we talked about what he likes doing, what he’d like to do more of, and what he’d like to be able to look back on a year from now.

And then I received guidance that I better be sure that everything we discuss falls into what’s he’s expected to do ‘at his level’. If I ask or expect him to do too much above his level, he may be eligible to file a grievance.

I’ve worked at a few companies who adopted OKRs, which stand for “objectives and key results.” Often OKRs cascade down from the top level of management, but you have certain overarching objectives to aim for, and then you propose ways to measure your success in achieving those objectives.

More often than not, I’ve worked at places where we were told to set stretch goals. Things that would push us, and it was ok if we didn’t meet them entirely. It was more about trying things and making progress. When I was at ReadyTalk, my manager told me that he wanted to see that I could lead through influence and prepare and present business cases to senior leadership. Both of these were outside the current expectations of the job I had, but once I’d demonstrated an interest in doing those things as well as some competency, I was promoted to a newly created position “Manager of Innovation Strategy”. Basically, I had to prove I would be successful in this new position before I got it, but he gave me the opportunity to do so.

Rationally, I understand that the job classification systems is “more fair”. You’re hired to do X, you’re paid to do X, so you only do X.

But I feel like some people don’t want to just do X for their whole career. And maybe they want to do Y on the same project or with the same team. Personally, I think that’s a positive thing. I see a lot of benefits to continuity. Yet the current system doesn’t really seem set up to support upward mobility. It relies on the right boxes to be in place for people to fill, rather supporting people to contribute to the best of their ability, which may mean creating some new boxes.

Except.. sometimes you can be ‘acting’. This seems to be where you’re operating in a position that you weren’t actually hired for.

I was acting for my manager this week while he was on vacation. I guess it was a good experience.. I got a glimpse into the nature of emails and requests that come across his desk in a given week! From that perspective, it was a way to determine whether that may be the types of tasks I’d be interested in doing (if I were to get a CS-04 position). But of course I was missing a lot of context, and still trying to do my own job at the same time, so it may not have been a completely fair assessment.

Acting isn’t always just for a short term vacancy, someone can be in an acting role for a longer period of time. I suppose this could be the equivalent of how my manager David wanted to see certain behaviours from me. In the case of acting roles in the gov’t, though, my understanding is that you actually get paid at the level you’re acting at, so that’s kinda cool :-) However, I’m not sure if an ‘acting’ opportunity is identified because of the person (deserving of more responsibility/challenges), or because of a vacancy.

This matters to me because one is about ‘acting’ being positive feedback (we are giving you this opportunity because you are exceeding expectations) and the other seems to spin a bit negative (we are giving you this opportunity because we need someone at this role and you’re not really there yet).

I recognize the need for performance standards and levels, but they need to be applicable to the actual work someone is doing. I want to look at UX-related tasks and responsibilities, and have someone at the right level based on what they’re doing and the value they’re contributing, not because at some point we created a box with a salary next to it.

Buzzfeed has their product design roles information available on GitHub.

So all this to say, I want to help grow and develop my team, but I first need to understand what opportunities I can provide them. I certainly have more to learn in this regard!

Sr UX Specialist with Canada Revenue Agency, former web dev and product person. 🔎 Lifelong learner. Unapologetic introvert. Plant-powered marathoner. Cat mom.

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