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How to Retain Public Employees by Taking Cues from the Private Sector

A major obstacle facing the public sector is attracting and retaining the best employees. Even the Judicial Council, the administrative body of the state’s judicial system, identifies in its strategic plan that salaries, opportunities for advancement, and work must be desirable in order to compete with the private sector. However, it doesn’t specify what steps should be taken in order to be competitive.  So what can the government do?

  • Create an effective performance management plan.

Performance management isn’t just performance reviews and exit interviews. It’s about getting the employee motivated and maintaining that motivation. And it starts on the employee’s first day. The on-boarding process should be more than just filling out the required paperwork and introductions.  It’s the first step in creating a positive first impression of the organization.

Management should orient new hires with the goals of the organization and communicate expectations of the job to meet those goals. In turn, employees can clarify their needs on how to excel in their new position. This foundation of open communication creates a positive work environment, and demonstrates to new hires their importance in the organization. When that foundation is strong, coaching becomes easier to do.

Many Fortune 500 companies like Google, Adobe, and General Electric have done away with traditional performance reviews. Instead of a number system ranging from “unsatisfactory” to “exceeds,” these companies are now using ongoing positive feedback that focuses on goal achievement. This type of coaching is successful when management communicates often and effectively, treats employees equally, and sets a good example. When management fails to do any of these, constructive criticism becomes criticism, and any performance issues and conflicts will escalate quickly. And this may cause the employee to quit.

The cost of employee turnover can be twice the annual salary, depending on the wage and role of the employee. It’s a waste of tax payer money because turnover, in most cases, is preventable. That’s why exit interviews are so important. They must be conducted to find out why an employee is leaving. And when turnover is high, exit interviews can reveal a common issue that management and HR will need to address.

  • Allow employees voluntary time off (VTO).

What better way for public employees to serve the public than to volunteer time to their community! Volunteering provides many personal benefits, including a boost in self-esteem and life satisfaction.  It’s no wonder that companies that provide and encourage VTO, like Salesforce, are reported to have the happiest employees. Team volunteering can also lead to a more engaged and communicative work environment.

It’s also just good branding. The general public has a negative opinion about government employees. Just think about your feelings when you hear DMV. If government agencies allow VTO, it’ll allow its employees to engage with members of their community on a more personal level and bust some of those negative views. It may even be a useful recruiting tool, especially when attracting millennials, who often look for companies that are philanthropic.

  • Build and maintain an attractive work culture.

The public workforce is an aging workforce. Government agencies will be facing huge labor shortages due to the retirement of baby boomers, which comprise the majority of government employees, and due to the lack of recruiting younger talent.

The government can’t spend tax payer money on catered lunches and gym memberships like the private sector does to attract millennials. Competitive salaries and retirement plans might not be an option due to strict budgets. What government agencies need to do is to start building a work culture that keeps employees engaged. The best way to start building a work culture is to really look at the organization’s mission statement, and how it aligns with its goals and values. Many companies in the private sector, like Zappos.com, have their values posted online (and in Zappos’ case, also in a blog) to clearly show what their culture is about.

From there, management needs to consistently, openly, and honestly communicate these goals and exemplify these values. Doing so will create an inclusive work environment where management and staff, as a team, come together on achieving the organization’s goals. It also instills the organization’s values, which gives employees a clear understanding of their purpose and role.

Management and HR need to be proactive in turning the organization’s weaknesses into strengths in order to build an attractive work culture. Team building exercises, pot-luck days, and leadership opportunities are a few ways to keep employees engaged and happy. This is especially important in government agencies where there is no room for advancement. Growth opportunities are very important to the younger workforce. Management that has a full understanding of the work culture can leverage it in the recruitment process to attract the right younger talent.

For example, if an organizational structure lacks advancement opportunities, management can place personal growth as a value, and offer life balance programs or time reservation for employees to pursue their passions. Management should be vocal about this value during the recruitment process in order to attract and retain younger employees who also place importance on personal growth.

With the right combination of culture and compensation, younger employees won’t want to leave.

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Voluntary time off is a tricky topic. As government employees, our salary is paid by taxpayer money. Taxpayers don’t like the idea of paying folks to not do their work – even if it is to do something laudable like volunteering in the community. Many organizational leaders are understandably uncomfortable supporting any significant type of VTO program because of this fact.

Victoria Pons

Public approval has always been hard to obtain for government agencies. I think a trial period of VTO would be beneficial to see if it is successful in retaining/attracting employees. If it is successful, the agency would have to be transparent with its budget to show the public that VTO cuts costs on recruiting, which saves taxpayers money.

The success of VTO will depend on company culture, and probably the size of the agency. Management and HR would need to look at many variables before allowing employees time off to volunteer.