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The Importance of Staying on Message

CQ Roll Call’s Hill Navigator advice column helps staffers with sticky or complicated situations they find themselves in on Capitol Hill. Each week, we take the most interesting submissions from our inbox and answer your concerns.

Q. I work for a yeller. Now, I know there are certain members that are known not to treat their staff nicely, but my boss is not one of them. Meaning, everyone always [says] how nice my boss is, but behind closed doors, my boss is a completely different person. I am not sure how long I can keep smiling and lying about how great my boss is. I am worried that if I speak up, [I’ll] have trouble finding a new job or people will gossip about me.

A. I could give you the song and dance about what it means to work for a boss who respects you and treats you kindly, but on Capitol Hill, even some of the best bosses can lose their cool behind closed doors. Most bosses have their ugly sides, and it’s the staffers’ role to hide that from the world.

Speaking up might only work if you can make a change. From the way you describe the yeller, this sounds like an ingrained personality trait that she or he is not likely to change.

Whether you decide to stay or go, you should keep up the talking points about how great your boss is. Bad-mouthing a former boss reflects badly on you, too. And if he or she yells loud enough, others will indeed notice, saving you any explanation. It will be one of the many poorly kept secrets on Capitol Hill.

Q. I recently started working for a member from a state that I never lived in and will have been to only once. All of the other staffers are from the state or from nearby states. There are definitely cultural differences to say the least. What can I do to fit in more and help them understand where I am coming from?

A. Learn about them and have them learn about you. Hometown pride makes Capitol Hill go ’round. The same people you speak to on the phone, write letters to, take meetings with and obsess over their reactions to votes are the ones electing your boss to his or her seat each term.

The voters are your shareholders. They are your boss’s boss, and they happen to live in a confined place called a state (or district). Getting to know them, where they live and the cultural differences that define them will help you succeed at your job, whether you’re working the front desk or writing legislation.

Also, remember that you — the outsider — can provide a valuable role. You were hired for a reason; you can provide another perspective that could be immensely helpful to working with other members of Congress, or finding ways to improve on existing programs and procedures.

At the end of the day, you’ll be a better and wiser staffer for getting to know the cultural intricacies of the state you work for. You might even decide it’s worth a second trip out there.

Follow up:

Last’s week’s column about a staffer reluctant to go pheasant shooting with his boss generated a number of responses. One respondent cited former Rep. Barbara B. Kennelly, D-Conn., taking up golf to fit in with the rest of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Another staffer pointed out Prince George’s County Trap and Skeet Center, a local spot where $40 will get you a gun rental and shooting lesson.

I agree that being a staffer means going the extra mile and learning new extracurricular skills — whether it’s golfing or shooting clay pigeons — but this particular question focused on the staffer’s level of comfort in doing so. If an activity of choice isn’t within your comfort zone, you can likely find one that is. And provided you’re making a real effort to better know the district, your boss and co-workers will appreciate it.

In addition, another astute former Hill staffer pointed out that the poor questioner seeking a title change from his office might be getting a not-too-subtle message instead. I urged the title-seeker to ask what else she or he could do, but I do agree that if all efforts are met with naught, then the office is sending a message — albeit an unpleasant one.

Got a question, concern or complaint about navigating life on Capitol Hill? Email us at or submit online at All submissions are treated anonymously.

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