Temporary reassignments are known to most government employees as details. For the most part, details are seen as an opportunity to meet workforce needs of the agency and a developmental opportunity for employees for hands-on work experience. Unofficially, details are also seen as a way to manage poor performers out of an organization.

It’s that third intent that most government employees think of when they hear of someone being detailed. And it is for that reason, that many employees do not see details as a positive developmental opportunity. So, in this post, I cover the broad benefits of a detail or temporary reassignment. And why YOU should apply to one if you see an opportunity.

Myth of temporary reassignments and poor performers

In my experience in government, I often hear about detailing poor performers. The hope was that the receiving organization would take them on as permanent employees. But, in the short term, the agency sending them (i.e., loosing office) would have relief from performance management.

Despite this common myth, a quick google search of details, temporary reassignments, and poor performers yields no relevant results. With no search results, I have to wonder whether this myth is as widespread as my experience suggests. Given that 3 of 4 agencies I’ve worked in unofficially used these methods I have to believe that it’s just not something people openly discuss.

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All that being said, I do want to offer one hole in this myth of using temporary reassignments to manage poor performers. In order to qualify for a detail, an employee must have a satisfactory performance rating during their prior rating cycle. Thus, if the employee truly is a poor performer, they will not be able to apply to a detail.

What is the true intent of details?

Let’s first be clear about what a detail is. Oddly enough, I couldn’t find much detail about the intent of details on OPM’s site. The best description I could find was instead through an Army’s page.

According to the Army, a detail is a temporary assignment to a different position for a specified period when the employee is expected to return to his or her regular duties at the end of the assignment. Details are intended for meeting temporary needs of the agency’s work, program or mission requirements when necessary services cannot be provided by other means. Details can be used in situations such as temporary shortage of military or civilian personnel or emergency work situations.

What I find most fascinating about this description is that it does not mention that details are used for, nor opportunities for, developing employees.

And yet, the benefits of details can reach beyond just meeting a temporary work requirement.

3 benefactors of details and temporary reassignments

Depending on your perspective, the benefit of temporary reassignments may be limited. When in fact, using details can have wide reaching benefits to not only you, us, and them – but to the government as a whole. Let me explain.

Benefit to the employee (i.e., you)

In a prior post, we talked about the limited benefits of classroom training. The benefits are limited because unused knowledge is quickly lost. Another limitation is that classroom training typically lacks real world context to perform in your own work environment. So what better opportunity to develop new skills than to learn them while doing the job?

Beyond that, temporary reassignments also offer you opportunities to broaden your professional network. In working in another office or agency, you gain stronger connections than you could in a setting like a classroom (assuming other agencies are represented) or a conference (if your agency allows you to go). These connections will prove especially valuable if you ever need them again for something like a job reference or access to materials/information.

Temporary reassignments also provide you an opportunity to gain new perspectives. Even if you detail into a position similar to your current permanent position, you will learn new ways of doing work. For better or worse. You may learn new processes that you can bring back with you. Or, identify processes you should definitely NOT bring back with you. Further, you may discover linkages between your current office and your temporary reassignment that could improve the functioning of both.

Benefit to the losing office (i.e., us)

It’s typically a tough sell to the losing office to allow a high performing employee to be detailed to another office. This is because the loss of the employee means that there will be work left undone or transferred to other employees that remain. When a manger is faced with impossible timelines and already short-handed, it’s hard to see the benefit of temporary reassignments.

I could tell you that the employee will come back with new skills and new connections. Because that is true. I could tell you that the employee will think more broadly in ways that will benefit you. Because that is also true. But, I understand those benefits are not top of mind when you have a hole in your team.

So here are some other benefits of temporary reassignments:

High performers often take up a lot of the job responsibilities of the team. In their departure, hidden gems of employees may surface when they take on those responsibilities. Underutilized employees can rise to the challenge and shine. In a sense, those who didn’t take a detail will benefit by taking on new responsibilities and develop new skills. Unexpectedly, the strengths of your team actually show greater than you previously realized. Further, the morale of your team may actually rise with their added opportunities to shine and stretch.

Hidden inefficiencies may surface, allowing you to improve existing processes.

Finally, by allowing your high performer to take a temporary reassignment, you may retain them. You may retain them by showing that you care in their development and growth. Retention may also come by giving them a break from work that had become boring to them. And, you may prevent a resignation by letting that employee see that the grass isn’t greener in the other office.

Benefit to the receiving office (i.e., them)

The benefits to the receiving office seem the most obvious. They have a work requirement, and they have an employee to meet the requirement. But, when used effectively, the benefits of temporary reassignments are huge.

First, if you are considering hiring the person who is temporarily reassigned, you get to test out whether they fit with low commitment. That is, if the person doesn’t fit well, they will return to their ‘losing office’ only a few months later.

Other benefits which were mentioned for the employee and losing office are also benefits to the receiving office. For example, the network connections and outsider’s perspective of the work being performed.

But most importantly, you are setting groundwork for future recruitment. If the temporarily reassigned employee has a positive experience, he/she will talk about it with their friends and colleagues. And, since people tend to spend time with people similar to themselves – those friends and colleagues are likely other high performers. So when you put out a job announcement in the future, your detailee is likely to recommend working for you or for your agency.

In close, whether you are considering a detail or your employee is asking for a temporary reassignment, I hope this article provides a bit of insight into why it would be beneficial for all involved.