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Guess It Really Is the Year to Hate…

Last week I wondered if 2011 would be the year to hate public employees.  Little did I know what would happen less than one week later to Rep. Giffords.

Most elected officials are going to be much more visible to the public than your average federal employee like me.  But even I experienced a small incident that shows that public employees can be the target of stupid, hate-filled speech as well.

For the most part, my job is tucked away in an office, where I stare at a computer screen most of the day.  However, education on what I do and how I do it is part of my job, and a part that I typically enjoy very much.  While people don’t always agree with how we do our work, I feel our process is pretty solid and provides benefit to the taxpayer.  When I explain my work, sometimes it is a challenge to ignore some of the dirty looks and negative feedback I get and remain professional and on point.  However, I recognize that my work impacts their lives, and I do appreciate the feedback.  Sometimes there is even a good idea or two to be gleaned from the suggestions.

This fall, I was giving my standard talk to a group that was a little more aggressive than usual.  During the Q&A session, a man toward the back of the room asked if I “had security to get back to my car later that night.”  The crowd erupted in laughter, because I think the man truly did intend the comment as a joke.

But frankly, the comment didn’t sit well with me from the start.  After the laughter died down, I simply asked “should I be concerned?”  Then I asked if he had a real question, which he did.  After the event, I did express some shock/concern to the host and some of the attendees, as well as my fellow co-speaker, that someone would make such an ignorant and disturbing comment, even if he thought he was making it in jest.  The people who knew him just shrugged their shoulders and said “oh, that’s just XXX.”  But no one was overly concerned or seemed to think it was too out of line.  I could see that I would quickly become the problem if I made it an issue.

No, I didn’t get attacked that night, nor did I think I would be.  But since that night several months ago, I have thought a lot more about my personal security.  I did experience a higher level of anxiety for a few weeks, especially when I got close to my office or home, checking to see if there were any odd-acting people standing around.  I have come to appreciate the security in my building, and feel a little guilty for complaining about it being “excessive” in the past.  Now I get it.

Public work has public impact.  While no one who works in public service should expect that everyone is going to love you and what you do, neither should we expect nor tolerate fear-based comments like the one I got.  I am not sure what kind of punishments are in place for people who threaten or harm both elected officials and regular people like me carrying out public service.  Whatever they might be, I hope they now become a degree stronger.

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