9 Tips to Attract and Retain the Best Employees at Your Agency

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee held a meeting on October 22 to determine whether the government could attract and retain better employees if pay flexibility was improved. Specifically, they spoke about the energy boom in North Dakota which left the government scrambling to find employees because federal pay rates could not keep pace with the private sector, and thus employees couldn’t meet skyrocketing housing costs.

In his testimony, Bill Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said that the situation in North Dakota is indicative of a larger problem in the federal government. “No employer can expect to recruit and retain a professional and skilled workforce while failing to keep up with general pay trends,” he said, adding “It is simply a myth that the GS system does not allow agencies to reward high performance or respond to a changing recruitment and retention environment, but these…pay tools are just not being used enough. And the primary reason for that is lack of funding.”

A sudden, dramatic increase in funding for federal pay is unlikely anytime soon (although around 100,000 federal employees who reside in one of 13 new “locality pay” zones will be receiving a pay boost in January), but the fact remains that government must use everything at its disposal to attract, hire, and retain the best possible workers. Below, I’ve shared nine low- or no-cost tips on finding the best and brightest for your agency.

  1. Remove rigidity from your agency structure: Those entering the job force today enjoy feeling valued and having a stake in their place of employment. Ensuring that managers are visible and accessible, and that all employees can have a voice and are recognized for the work that they do, goes a long way toward keeping your workforce happy. Empower your workers by decentralizing decision-making, and show them that you trust and value their work.
  2. Spread the word about your open jobs: Your hiring might be done primarily through your agency website or USAJobs, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t promote your open positions on social media.
  3. Connect emotionally with employees: Many people desire working in a field in which they feel a sense of purpose, and government is tailor made for this. Each and every agency provides important services for the clients it serves. Share with the world what your agency is up to, profile your staff, and talk about the ways your work reaches your customers. When developing recruiting materials, or talking about your agency, be more than a boring mission statement. Getting potential employees excited about your mission is of utmost important.
  4. Offer clear career progression and explain how you can help: When you’re recruiting, either in person or through marketing materials, don’t just be the job opening. Sell a career path to potential employees. Talk to them about their goals, and how your agency can help them achieve them. Discuss common career paths in your agency and help them begin to envision a place for themselves.
  5. Diversify your project assignments: Many young workers entering the job force are driven more by the work that they do than the company for which they work. That said, retaining these employees means ensuring that they have the flexibility to work on a variety of projects that meet their interests.
  6. Offer in-person or virtual job shadowing: Showing someone your agency is a lot easier than telling them about it. Consider creating a “day in the life” video, or allow those in the hiring process to spend some time shadowing employees or asking questions of current employees. It will help them better understand the work environment and what is expected in various positions. This is a helpful retention tool as well—allow your current employees to shadow other positions into which they might be interested in moving.
  7. Create flexible jobs and an environment that matches: We have all heard about the desire for workers to have flexible work environments that include telecommuting, four-day workweeks, and varied start times. And those are great things to offer. But they become less useful if you don’t create a culture that supports these employees. If you have other employees who are constantly making comments about when someone comes in or how long their lunch was, you have to be prepared to put a stop to it. Encourage your employees to get their work done in the best way possible, rather than letting someone bully them into a 9-5 that might not fit their other family/life commitments.
  8. Focus on your interns: Start your recruiting activities with your interns. Help them see possible career paths and where they might fit full-time within the agency. If they have the right skills for the job, they’re the perfect job pool because they already possess some institutional knowledge. That said, when you bring in interns, work to ensure that you’ve cultivated a positive work environment for them, so that they would be excited to stay onboard.
  9. Connect with intrinsic motivations to join government: When you recruit, don’t focus on pay and benefits. Instead, determine what motivated the person to join government. Likely, it’s to make a difference, so make it clear how your agency is doing that every day for the customers it serves. Denver, for example, managed to convince Chipotle’s CIO to leave the private sector and come to the city by marketing it as a job in which you can truly have an impact on your community.

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What courses should high school students take so that they may be considered for jobs in government?

What majors should college students become?

What websites should recent graduates or career changers look at to search for government jobs?


What are your benefits like?
Do you give tuition reimbursement for people who want to go back to school while they work there?


Would you hire just for the summer?
Would you consider creating a program where teachers could do a paid internship there learning about government and helping you guys out by doing work that is needed there?

C. Rasmussen

These suggestions while having a “common-sense” appeal are far too general to be applied to all agencies and jobs. Additionally, few people and fewer leaders understand the complexity of enacting the tips or even any particular tip. For example, removing rigidity from organizational structure may not be practical or even legal for some organizations. If the structure is set in legislation then it is easy to disregard the tip. However, if structure is not formally set then the real problems occur when attempting to follow the tip. Since organizations are complex what may seem as simple may, in fact, disregard culture within the organization. Simple changes can be beneficial, but can also be extremely damaging.

So how should an organization approach determining if your organization should pursue any of the “tips”? Seek out a professional… someone specifically trained and knowledgible in organizational development such as an industrial-organizational psychologist. While you can choose to pick someone with “street cred”, they likely will not be well versed in the complexities of the work environment such as the factors behind job satisfaction.

Organizational change is serious business and should be taken very seriously. If you have cancer you probably will not seek out a self-help person without a serious medical background in oncology. Consequently, you should not look to those without serious background in organizational development and the science behind what works and does not work in organizational development.


I concur with the gist of C. Rasmussen’s comments. While the target article is interesting, it fails to recognize the very rigid system in which most federal employees are hired and work. The techniques might be very successful in the private sector but have no real chance of working in federal government . Organizations (at least the one I work for) are exceedingly hierarchical and top down. Ideas from the “workers” are generally not given any kind of consideration, even though the official line is that “we are open to innovation.” The agencies are laden with “managers,” both career and political, who are more than often than not appointed less due to their managerial skill, capabilities, and interests, than their political clout or seniority. Thus all of the ideas regarding less rigidity, diversification, emotional connections, career progressions, and flexibility are pretty much meaningless to them in any substantive kind of way. Finally, and with this I mean no disrespect, but in my agency entry level PFT positions almost always go veterans unless there is person with a special “political” in or the job has requisite skills which are difficult to find.


Hello Fed Gov’t Employers,
I am available to hire–Live in DC area.
Hold MPA and analyzed federal agency reports for public consumption
PS Have no Veterans Preference

Mrs C


I have several certifications as well as advanced degrees. I find it very difficult to get into federal government because of the good old boys network. I have the skill sets as well as the qualifications, but time and time again, I see individuals being hired based upon who you know instead of what you know. I am a hard and dedicated worker and my work ethic is top notch. Not to mention I am also an Army Veteran I currently work at Offutt AFB, so if there is anyone who would be willing to give me a chance, I am available for hire.