Leadership Corner

All Hands: Workplace environment, shared stewardship and safety

August 24th, 2018 at 2:15PM

Photo: Portrait of Vicki Christiansen in front of American & Forest Service flags.
Interim Chief Vicki Christiansen, USDA Forest Service

I want to thank everyone who joined me and Acting Associate Chief Lenise Lago on Wednesday’s all-employee call. We covered a lot of ground in the call, from workplace environment, to safety, to shared stewardship and beyond. I will briefly cover these topics in this week’s Leadership Corner article for anyone who missed the call or had connection problems. In addition, you can listen to the entire call via the audio recording, including the Question and Answer session at the end where I responded to a question about my personal experience with unprofessional behavior earlier in my career and where Lenise gave an update on hiring. You submitted many questions in advance and we did not have time to address them all. If you asked a question that we did not answer through the content of the call or Q&A, stay tuned. We will respond to each question submitted to the leadership corner forum and the employee inbox over the next two weeks. I want this discussion to continue in our Leadership Corner Forum. Please ask a question or respond to a colleague there.

Work Environment

We can fulfill our mission only if we have a work environment that is safe, respectful, rewarding and free from harassment and retaliation of any kind. Our Stand Up for Each Other training event was part of our journey together toward a better future. This is mission-critical work, as important as everything else we do.

Your feedback from Stand Up highlighted a few themes:

  • We need our agency core values to be part of our lives every day.
  • We need to develop people skills and hold everyone accountable for having those skills.
  • We need to reward a resilient workplace just as much as we reward successful work.

We have been taking steps for years to improve our work environment, such as amending our anti-harassment policy, opening an anti-harassment call center, and reporting on how we have held people accountable for misconduct. You can find these resources and more on our Anti-Harassment web page.

Your feedback has prompted further actions:

  • You told us some of the video scenarios in Stand Up were obvious or extreme cases, so in the video we are producing for next year, we will include situations where the behaviors don’t cross a line so obviously. You’ll be able to practice what to do in these situations.
  • You told us you want better skills for dealing with conflict and holding sensitive conversations, whether about work assignments and priorities or about race and sexuality. We will improve in this area not just through training but also through living our values of inclusion and interdependence.
  • You told us you want to help but are not sure how. We worked with Peace Corps to adapt its bystander intervention training, and after modifying the training to better reflect Forest Service situations, we will offer training sessions, possibly starting in September.
  • Several of you told us you don’t necessarily want to officially report some instances of harassment but rather confide in a coworker as a friend. We are reviewing the anti-harassment policy to see what steps we can take to respond to your concerns.

This issue is so important that we are appointing a member of the Executive Leadership Team to focus exclusively on improving our work environment. I am grateful to announce that Leslie Weldon, the current Deputy Chief for National Forest System, will serve in this capacity. Leslie has been a leader at every level of this agency, dedicated throughout her career to improving employees’ lives and well-being.


Every employee deserves a work environment that is safe, as well as respectful and rewarding. Particularly at this time of year, risks are involved in much of what we do, both on and off the fireline. That’s why safety must be central to everything we do.

That includes pacing ourselves and looking out for one another, remembering to “stop, think and talk” before “acting” in all potentially dangerous circumstances. You have not just the right but also the duty to stop unsafe acts.

Please make sure you are properly qualified, trained and equipped for your assignments and both mentally and physically capable of safely accomplishing them. That includes talking about stress, whether it’s due to the many critical vacancies we face or something else. It includes taking time to recharge and talk about shared leadership responsibility.

I want everyone to go home safely at the end of each day. This year, too many brave firefighters have already paid the ultimate price. I want and expect every one of us to do everything we can so that we don’t lose any more.

Shared Stewardship

As you know, we are facing another severe fire year. Growing fire severity has led to rising firefighting costs. We have been forced to borrow from non-fire programs and to dedicate a rising proportion of our budget to fire.

In March, Congress passed an omnibus appropriations bill that authorizes a fire funding fix. Beginning in fiscal year 2020, we will get a joint budget authority of $2.25 billion, together with the Department of the Interior, to cover firefighting costs that exceed regular appropriations. This fix will end the need to borrow money from non-fire programs and stop the erosion of non-fire budgets.

The omnibus bill also expanded our authorities for active forest management, including our capacity for shared stewardship. Through shared stewardship, the Forest Service and our state and other partners have unprecedented opportunities to co-manage fired risk. Secretary Perdue recently announced a new stewardship strategy. We are sharing our concept for an outcome-based investment strategy with partners across the nation as a starting point for dialogue.

Shared stewardship means working across boundaries and sharing decision-making authority. We will build on the great work the Forest Service is doing with partners at the local level with collaborative efforts. We are scaling up by convening at the state level; using mapping and decision tools to conduct treatments where they can provide the most benefit, thereby protecting communities, watersheds and economies; and using every authority we possess for active management, working with partners and stakeholders to make those decisions. By working with—and listening to—the people who live and work in the affected communities, we can best improve the health and well-being of forests and communities.

This approach will enable us to be more strategic about where we place our treatments based on shared outcomes, to use every tool that we have been given, to continue to reshape and streamline our own administrative processes, and to work at a scale that matches the size of the problem.

I know this might seem difficult, especially with so many positions unfilled. We have filled several thousand seasonal positions, but we still need to fill permanent positions. Our Human Resources team is working hard, and we are catching up on our hiring backlog. If you listen to the audio podcast, you will hear a more complete update on hiring from Acting Associate Chief Lago. I know that you occasionally feel overwhelmed, and I know that you need the tools to do your best on behalf of our agency and the communities we serve.

We want to be more inclusive, and, to that end, we intend to conduct all-employee calls every quarter. We will continue to improve the technology and level of engagement. Again, I invite you to provide your feedback and suggestions through the Leadership Corner Forum.

Please know that I deeply value all you do. Standing up for each other means respecting everyone and showing that respect when we interact with each other. When we share leadership and listen to each other’s concerns, we build the skills to create a positive work environment. I expect us all to invest in relationships and see strength in diversity.

I see courageous and innovative leaders wherever I go in this agency—I see leadership coming not from position descriptions but from within. Let’s build on this momentum.

Photo: Interim Chief Christiansen stands at podium.
Interim Chief Christiansen held an all-employee call Aug. 22 from the Washington Office. Forest Service photo by Tanya Flores.
Photo: Close-up of employees, one taking notes.
Employees in the Washington Office listen intently to interim Chief Christiansen during her all-employee call Aug. 22, 2018. Forest Service photo by Tanya Flores.