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February 23, 2009
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It was a wonderful lunch at a great German restaurant with a very dear friend — an event which is not repeated often enough.  That friend is very arguably America’s finest medical examiner, Dr. Joshua Perper. 

Our lunch was full of conversation about issues around not only the work of a medical examiner and specific cases (with proper respect for privacy as well as lunch digestion), but also with discussions about organizational issues in a county government involving the placement of a medical examiner’s function and its relationship to the criminal justice system, human services, human resources and more. 

One particular subject came up that is directly relevant to how we conduct public administration. 

There is a worldwide disease that can strike without warning in any department, in any job classification and can infect any person, whether an elected official, an appointed officer or a full- or part-time employee.  In some organizations the disease can reach epidemic proportions when unchecked and not treated.

Dr. Perper named this disease “Assume-itis.”  This bureaucratic syndrome is characterized by a rash of behavior by persons who make assumptions without checking facts, taking statements or research by others out of context, gossiping and speaking ill of colleagues or disrespecting the citizens we serve

Besides the “rash” cited above, the other major symptom is the loss of impulse control.  A colleague who makes assumptions and runs around acting on them without checking them may find that the assumptions made become a basis of actions by other people.  Those actions, in turn, can spin out of control and infect others. 

An employee who prepares an agenda report for the governing body, but speaks to the press before making sure that the elected officials have seen the document, may be putting those officials and others in an unnecessarily awkward position. 

Citing numbers without verification or validation may lead others to think the numbers are tantamount to the discovery of the Holy Grail, and they may base programs, staffing and facility decisions on those numbers. When in fact, reality sets in and cost overruns are about to gobble up the budget, the result may be the amputation of the programs, if not the employment of the person. 

It is important to help a new colleague begin a career in public administration with a mandatory vaccination program built around training and ethics, schooling in the prevention of due-diligence failures and appreciation of the terrible effects of Assume-itis on their own careers, success and happiness in their chosen profession.

Is there an effective treatment for Assume-itis?  Unfortunately, at this point in the conversation, our lunch had ended and the last vestiges of apple strudel were already being digested. 

However, if I may dare to speak for an eminent medical examiner, as well as contribute my own HR perspectives, the best treatment is prevention.  Absent that, the next best approach is coaching and mentoring by someone else who is not afraid to say things to a fellow employee that will help the person avoid a repeat infection.

Assume-itis remains in the system.  It can never be excised out completely, and it may always be lurking ready to jump out if a person isn’t vigilant about their own behavior as a professional. 

Dr. Perper is a lawyer as well as a physician.  He would be one of the first to say, “Don’t assume facts not in evidence.”  The best professionals trust and verify rather than only doing one of those two.

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •


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