Career Conversations for Improved Employee Engagement

“Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go”

I attended a webinar a few weeks ago that was based on the book, “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go,” by Beverly Kaye and Julie Winkle Giulioni. The webinar and book talk about the critical role that supervisors play in employee engagement and development. The webinar made me think about the 2014 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (EVS) that just closed last week. I remembered that last year’s results had a significant drop in employee satisfaction, and wondered if this year’s responses would improve. According to OPM, last year’s decline was seen “across a majority of questions.” My question is how much of the decline is related to supervisors not focusing enough on their employees’ development.

Do you agree with the statement and title of the book…”Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go”? Do you believe that if supervisors neglect to focus on their employees’ development, employees will eventually leave? Leaving does not always mean physically leaving, but it can also mean “leaving,” and staying on the job. In other words, they stay but stop working, which is called active disengagement.

What Does the Research Tell Us?

  • “23% of employees leave their jobs due to lack of development opportunities and training,” National Research Business Institute

  • “Employee engagement has dropped 5% since 2011 according to the EVS,” Corporate Executive Board (CEB)

  • “Top drivers of employee retention and engagement are a good relationship with the supervisor and an understanding of career opportunities in the organization,” Training Magazine, July/August 2013

  • “When supervisors are effective at developing people, they can increase performance by up to 25% and engagement by up to 29%”, CEB

EVS Scores

Let’s talk a little bit about the Federal EVS and what it tells us. There has always been a healthy debate on whether the EVS scores are a good indicator of employee engagement. Whether you believe the results are a true indicator that an organization is a “best place to work” or not, agencies still should pay careful attention to what their employees are telling them in their responses. Managers especially should pay attention to EVS results because employee engagement has a direct impact on their work performance and ability to get the work accomplished.

EVS Questions within a Supervisor’s Span of Control




43) My supervisor/team leader provides me with opportunities to demonstrate my leadership skills.




44) Discussions with my supervisor/team leader about my performance are worthwhile.




(46) My supervisor/team leader provides me with constructive suggestions to improve my job performance.




47) Supervisors/team leaders in my work unit support employee development.




Questions within a Supervisor’s Sphere of Influence




68) How satisfied are you with the training you receive for your present job?




(69) Considering everything, how satisfied are you with your job?




From OPM’s Governmentwide 2013 Weighted Results

Trend Analysis (http://www.fedview.opm.gov/2013/Reports/FHCSComp.asp?AGY=ALL)

What’s My Prediction?

I think that the scores will continue to decline until supervisors and agencies make significant changes to how they are engaging employees. We can hope that agencies are changing in order to increase employee engagement and not just because they are embarrassed with their standing on the “best places to work” list. Agencies have to get serious about why they want to make changes as well as have a sincere desire to make things better.

The fact that 38% of positive responses, from last year’s survey, on the item, “I believe the results of this survey will be used to make my agency a better place to work.” means that I’m not the only one who does not have confidence in agencies efforts to improve employee engagement. Maybe agencies are serious, but may not be taking the right steps.

How Can Agencies Improve?

There isn’t a prescription that will instantly solve the employee engagement issue that exists within the Federal government. Clearly, it will take a complex strategy to address the employee engagement issues at the agency, work unit, supervisor, and leadership levels. I am proposing a phased approach that can be applied Federal government-wide. The Partnership for Public Service, which issues the Best Places to Work list, made attempts to assist agencies in creating action plans to improve EVS scores which is a great first step.

I believe that agencies can take small steps on their own. In fact, the Organizational Development (OD) Community of Practice is making improving EVS scores a top priority and topic for future meetings. Here’s a way to get started.

  • First, involve the right people. Do not tackle this issue without OD professionals. Addressing employee engagement issues is one of the many things that they do. Why not use their expertise.

  • Second, benchmark the top five agencies to find out what they are doing. We should ask these agencies what they are doing to sustain their high standing as “best places to work.” Ask them, “What do you do, that our agency is not doing, and how can we model what you are doing?”

  • Third, establish focus groups to ask employees to validate the results and take a deeper dive into the root causes of some of the responses. Find out what’s going on with a mindset of really caring and wanting to improve employees’ work experiences. Please do not have focus groups just to collect data and not do anything with the data collected.

  • Fourth, supervisors need to have career conversations. By having career conversations, supervisors can make a huge impact on their employees’ work experiences. Have you heard the saying, “People don’t leave jobs, they leave supervisors.” Employees want to know that supervisors are really interested in their growth and development.

Career development is not about completing an individual development plan (IDP) or checking the box that you have had two conversations with employees because the performance management system requires it. Career development is about quality, stimulating conversations that stem from genuine interest in helping others grow.

I am looking forward to the 2014 EVS scores and seeing how agencies make strides to increase employee engagement. Hopefully, they will encourage supervisors to have more career conversations. Please share your agency’s plan for improving employee engagement as well as your thoughts about the EVS.

Deadra Welcome is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Mark Hammer

Deadra, I *do* tend to drone on about this, and I apologize in advance, but too many people make too much of apparent drops in their FEVS results, without considering changes to the tenure distribution of the people filling it out. My experience is that, typically, recent hires will be about 5-6 points higher than those with at least 3 years of tenure, when we roll results up as simply %pos-%neg. As the share of people completing an employee survey consists of more, and less, recent hires, the aggregate results will shift accordingly. Invoke a hiring freeze, such that all the people completing the survey now have a year’s more tenure, and watch your aggregate result drop by a point or two. And that will be over and above whatever impact on morale those hiring freezes will have had. It’s a bit like looking at standardized test scores for a school before and after the gifted or special needs class in that school has been moved to another school in the district.

The real test is to ignore, or factor out, recent hires, and look at the results for people with at least 3 years of service. If there has been a hiring freeze, and aggregate results have dropped by 1-3%, there is a good chance that the folks with more tenure will have the exact same results they had a year or two ago. Not guaranteed, mind you, but you DO want to know if it’s real or merely apparent change. Real change demands a response. Responding to illusory change is a waste of everyone’s time.

It works in the other direction too. There can be the appearance of an “improvement” simply because an agency has ratcheted up recruitment, when nothing has changed in the views of those who were already working for that organization.

I’m home busy sanding the hardwood floors today, so I won’t take the time to consult the posted results, but I seem to recall that the composition of the population completing the most recent FEVS was different from the previous year. So you may want to look into that.

As I’m fond of reminding people, it’s not just what they’re telling you, it’s also who is telling you.


Mark, thank you so much for your insights. I agree with you that the scores have to be looked at in the proper context of demographics. Agencies need to see the complete story that the results tell and not just the story that they want to tell. You bring up excellent points that need to be considered when using the EVS results to make decisions.