5 Tips for Keeping Top Talent in Government

Everybody loves the boss who brings in donuts on Fridays and cake on birthdays. These generosities show employees that the boss is thoughtful and cares about employees. But when it comes time for an employee to choose between staying or leaving a position, office sweets won’t be the deciding factor.

Many leaders in government are facing an uphill battle trying to keep employees within their agencies and within the public sector at large. The private sector is often able to offer higher salaries, flashier perks and further mobility – attracting both peak professionals and new hires.

For that reason, government needs to capitalize on the talent it has in-house, making the most of programs and budgets to retain top performers. While every employee wants to be GS-15 – or General Schedule 15, the highest pay scale for white-collar civilian employees – or a part of the Senior Executive Service (SES) leadership in government, elite positions are limited. Government managers and HR departments need to look for other avenues of reward and recognition to keep top performers.

“There’s room for everyone at the table, but everyone just needs to figure out where the table-settings are,” Traci DiMartini, Chief Human Capital Officer for the U.S. Peace Corps, said during GovLoop’s Wednesday online training.

During the training, “5 Tips to Retain Your Team,” DiMartini shared five approaches for managers who want to keep top performers. DiMartini warned that all five approaches might not be applicable for every situation or every agency, and that sometimes, employees will naturally leave specific offices or departments. The goal, she emphasized, is to keep top performers in public service when opportunities for promotion or advancement in their current situation is scant.

Below are the five tips.

  1. Be realistic, engaged and motivated

Managers and employees should know the reality of work in government. So from the beginning, managers cannot afford to make guarantees of promotion or eventuality for new hires. Instead, they should put employees in places to succeed.

DiMartini said that often when budgets are running short, the first thing managers cut is training. That is a massive mistake, she said. Training helps employees grow and advance into new roles while proving return on investment.

These opportunities are one way to engage employees and show them that their work is valued. Bad managers, who DiMartini said are all too common in government, often fail to recognize employees. Therefore, recognition – even if it doesn’t come by way of promotion – is a crucial component of retaining valuable employees.

“Sometimes, it’s just about creating a culture of ‘Your work is valuable and we appreciate you,'” DiMartini said.

  1. Be creative, flexible and open

Success doesn’t always mean having an employee go above and beyond expectations. Instead, grooming employees for future wins can be far more important than temporary sprints for success.

DiMartini suggested two approaches to prime employees for what’s next: detail assignments and mentoring.

“There are so many no-cost or low-cost activities every day that we don’t take advantage of,” DiMartini said.

Mentoring, whether through official or unofficial programs, can help employees of all ages settle into the office while preserving institutional knowledge from those at the top. Meanwhile, detail assignments, such as those through the Presidential Management Council Interagency Rotation Program, show employees that managers care about their success. Losing employees for a short time to details can help agencies retain them for the long term – as employees will be grateful for the opportunity and eager to share their newfound knowledge, DiMartini said.

  1. Make performance management real

Government performance evaluations are notorious. Managers can be anxious about negatively reviewing employees, and then, pairing that hesitancy with a static and limited evaluation system, poor performers can gain the same footing as high performers.

Managers need to be able and willing to give constructive, critical feedback. Otherwise, top performers will grow frustrated, and poor performers will fail to improve.

Then, managers need to listen. Working within bureaucratic processes, managers can struggle to adapt, so seeking out and considering feedback is necessary.

“You’re going to need to give feedback and receive it,” DiMartini said.

  1. Define your why

The fourth tip is the simplest, but it’s crucial for successful public service. Employees or managers should be in public service because of the mission. That’s not to say the work has to be everybody’s dream job, but they should know the mission and connect with it.

Leaders inside of offices can help with these efforts by communicating the value of work. For employees, seeing demonstrable outcomes of their work will help keep them passionate and engaged.

  1. Get out of the way if you don’t want to be in the lead

One of the biggest problems in the government, DiMartini said, is poor leadership.

“The federal government does a terrible job picking people to be leaders, and then we don’t invest in them,” DiMartini said. “We make it a competition.”

DiMartini was referring to the fact that too many times, leadership positions were awarded based on seniority, technical expertise and performance reviews – often skimming over the fact that they will actually have to lead. Many times, she said, employees don’t even want to manage people, but take the leadership responsibility because of promotion and pay raises.

Therefore, government agencies need to elevate leaders into leadership positions, offering training and growth opportunities on the way. And for those who don’t want to be leaders, there’s nothing wrong with that. Agencies must open up opportunities for advancement in technical fields to those who do not want to be managers or leaders.

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