“Federal Managers Retain Wrong Employees” – True?

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This topic contains 14 replies, has 9 voices, and was last updated by  Henry Brown 7 years, 5 months ago.

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  • #176178

    “Eliminating unnecessary functions and positions and effectively addressing poor performing employees are particularly vital for agencies if they are going to show Congress, the President, and the American people, that they have done as much as possible with as few resources as possible.” –Source: Merit Systems Protection Board survey, as reported in GovExec

    According to this research:

    • Respondents overwhelmingly (70%+) think their agency “does not adequately eliminate unnecessary functions and positions”
    • Only 2 in 5 (41%) say organization keeps its best performers
    • Only 1 in 4 (less than 25%) approve of the way poor performers are handled

    Given all the emphasis on innovation and good government these days, why do federal agencies still find it tough to optimize work functions and retain top talent?

  • #176206

    Henry Brown

    Not a whole lot different in the private sector Managers keep the resources that they are the most comfortable with…

    “the way it has always been done”, and until something real comes along and forces change probably will always be the way things are done…

  • #176204

    Peter Sperry

    I’ve seen many of these internal surveys of government employees that almost always find large numbers believe the best performers leave and poor performers are retained. I never see the logical followup question: “So why are you still here?”

    Do the respondents really believe they are the exception to the rule? or do they view themselves as poor performers who are being retained while their more qualified colleagues move on? Or is everyone in government just complaining about the status quo while waiting for the opportunity to jump ship?

    My personal observation has been that government employees generally fit a normalized bell curve. There are some really impressive superstars and some equally impressive duds in each end of the curve but the vast majority are plus or minus one standard deviation of average.

    The secret to management science since the building of the pyramids has been to avoid the delusion of thinking you can put together a team of 100% superstars and concentrate instead on developing systems that allow average workers to achieve extrodinary results. Closely examine even the most outstanding organizations in any sector and you will usually find their employees may lean a little more to the high end of the curve but they must still contend with more bottom feeders than they would like. The difference between top and bottom organizations is how well they do at getting the best from what they have to work with.

    BTW, a favorite annadote regarding government projects and employees; when asked how many people were working on the Hoover Dam project, the lead engineer replied “about 2/3rds on a good day.”

  • #176202

    Mark Hammer

    I don’t know that it is managers willfully retaining “poor performers” so much as poor performers being less likely to secure other better-compensated work elsewhere. They are, in effect, the “spare change” you have left in your pocket after you take out the 10’s and 20’s. I worked in a directorate a decade back that experienced considerable turnover. It wasn’t that people were unhappy, or that we were poorly managed, or that the work was uninteresting. Rather, the skillsets we looked for when hiring made our people very valuable to other agencies, and when promotions were staring them in the face, they took them. It’s a bit like being a restaurant on a busy highway. The customers you get may love the food and service, and be great tippers, but you don’t get to keep them as customers: they’re on their way to somewhere else.

    Keep in mind as well, that managers who are poor performers themselves (they exist? c’mon, you’re kidding, right?), are unlikely to bring out or sustain the best in their employees. Of course, that doesn’t prevent them from filling out survey forms about their employees.

    Historically, I don’t think governments look very hard at the different KINDS of churn/turnover. Losing your best people to another corner of the organization, or to another agency, COULD add value to the public service overall, or at least more net benefit than net loss. Right people in the right place at the right time, right? Maybe. It can also result in disruption, with corporate knowledge loss, and diminuition of capacity, when a manager is left with only the less shiny stars.

    All of that is separate from departures, where good people leave the PS entirely.

  • #176200

    Marian Henderson

    Another great post, Peter! I agree with your observation about the bell curve. In my state agency I would say that we have a very normal distribution of stars and duds. I firmly believe that it’s all about helping people to succeed with whatever skill set they’ve been blessed with. I’ve been feeling like the proverbial springboard over the last few years as several of my employees have promoted beyond me! Now THAT’S a success story!

  • #176198

    Terrence Hill

    The root problem is that we really don’t have very effective performance management systems, which can help us to distinguish between engaged, high-performers and disengaged, non-performers. We all know that the high-performers are the ones who are mobile and leave the organization when faced with a dysfunctional organization. What is often left are the “survivors” or those who are not engaged, high-performing, or marketable. Without an adequate performance management system, there is no way to measure this phenomenon.

  • #176196

    It seems to me that the trouble comes down to change management and the fact that ‘optimizing’ always means someone wins and someone loses.

  • #176194


    New skill sets are needed across the board to help transition our antiquated systems and processes.

    This is promising: http://www.nextgov.com/cio-briefing/2013/01/cio-council-agency-it-shops-get-smart-social-media-and-open-government/60741/

  • #176192

    Let’s just say I would love to be “CEO” for a day.

  • #176190

    Wow this has never happened to me before…just lost an entire comment and it was lengthy. Let me try to recapture it.

    Here are 10 things I would do if I was in charge for the day. Of course all opinions are my own and these are generic thoughts, not specific to any particular Agency.

    1) Stand up an Office of Human Capital to absorb HR, Training, Workforce Effectiveness, Organizational Development. Mandate 360s. Post results in the aggregate, internally.

    2) Crowdsource a 360 of the Agency by any interested party – what functions are inherently Agency, which can be accomplished through shared services (interagency), which should be contracted out. Post the results publicly.

    3) Stand up an Office of Citizen Engagement to absorb all communication, open data and data release functions.

    4) Eliminate any “administrative” category of work as a catchall and replace it with specific functions – customer service, project management, knowledge management, etc. Retrain existing administrative assistants to perform these functions.

    5) Implement Google Apps or a similar cloud-based work solution that easily enables secure work anywhere, anytime.

    6) Stand up an Office of Employee Mobility to enable telework, virtual collaboration, use of mobile devices.

    7) Stand up a separate Office of Internal Communication to enable two-way feedback between Agency and employee. Staff it, fund it, etc.

    8) Stand up an Office of Alternative Dispute Resolution to help deal with workplace conflict before it escalates into time-consuming formal complaints, litigation, etc.

    9) Stand up an Office of Public-Private Partnerships to bring in the private sector, academia and government-watching organizations that can help the Agency function more optimally.

    10) Implement a powerful electronic customer service helpdesk solution to handle inquiries internally and externally. It should include chat, text, email, and telephone support. It should guide people to parts of the website that can answer inquiries.

    The above 10 steps would go a long way to optimizing the functions of the agency and retaining talented people who want to be a part of the solution to the problems that currently exist.

  • #176188

    Marie Thompson

    I find this more in small cities & towns where the good ol’ boy way of live still dominates. Where the local business person thinks managing and governering are the same.

  • #176186

    Mark Hammer

    Some years back, a colleague at DHS introduced me to the expression “30-year mistake”: those employees one hired in error, that you just can’t seem to get rid of.

    Keeping in mind that folks unskilled in the arts of assessment and selection CAN make a bad pick, I cannot emphasize enough that the “poor performer” label is often an external attribution for the manager or organizations failure to make effective use of what that “performer” can bring to the table. The work assigned may be an inappriopriate match. The directives may be unclear. The manager may have done their outright best to demotivate and disengage the employee. It happens. Certainly not in every case, but in more than we’d care to admit. If you’re lucky, that person will recognize their bad fit to the organization or unit, and find something else.

    And, while I’d rather not be partisan in my comments, we also have those “You’re doin’ a heckuva job, Brownie” situations, where the perception of the manager is more positive than that of those who don’t have a say in that individual’s performance appraisal but still have to bear the consequences.

    Between those whose performance is misapplied, misperceived and misevaluated at both ends of the distribution, I don’t place an enormous amount of faith in such ratings.

    If one wishes to understand employee turnover better, there is no finer place to start than the work of Terry Mitchell and Tom Lee at Univ. Washington. Good people leave jobs and workplaces they love for reasons you often have no control over, and lousy employees stay in jobs they hate for reasons you have no control over. Sometimes, retention is a fool’s game.

  • #176184

    Steve Ressler


  • #176182

    @Mark, what is the gist of Mitchell and Lee’s findings?

    As far as the “30-year mistake” this is really core to the way government hiring works vs. private sector. We invest in people for the long term rather than in their productivity over the short term (“churn and burn”).

    The problem is that we don’t maximize productivity as well as we could for a few reasons.

    #1 the bureaucracy is slow to adapt.

    #2 it’s only human for people to compete against one another rather than collaborate

    #3 while the mission is clear the goals often are not, and when the goals are articulated clearly they inevitably cause controversy, leading some organizations to adopt a default model of silence

    #4 there is a tendency to adopt technology first and training/customer service is an afterthought

    #5 when difficult decisions need to be made the resistance is so strong that it can eat people alive.

  • #176180

    Mark Hammer

    The scope of Terry and Tom’s work is evident in the publication titles one can see listed here: http://www.foster.washington.edu/centers/facultyresearch/facultypro

    One of the ideas the two, and their colleagues, have put to the challenge is that turnover occurs principally because of lousy bosses or working conditions. In actuality, a lot of people, competent and not, leave jobs they love, and stay in jobs they hate. In some instances, bad management/supervision plays a role, but in many it doesn’t. Departures can occur because of what they refer to as “shocks”. Those shocks could be an intolerable standoff with a co-worker or supervisor, but could also be a required change in the commuting arrangements dictated by child-care or other caregiver needs (e.g., frail parents), or an informal offer of position from someone you struck up a conversation with at a little league game. Shocks can be positive or negative. The extent to which such shocks precipitate departure will depend on the “embeddedness” of the employee. People can be committed to “the mission”, the compensation or needed benefits, their co-workers, the ease of commute, the familiar routine, or any of a host of things. And as Mitchell and Lee have also argued, departure intentions can be “contagious”. (Indeed, I asked the question, last year or the year before, whether retirement was “contagious”, and as a kind of departure, the answer may well be ‘Yes”.)

    If I could summarize their stance, there are “pull” factors (a great offer, a shorter commute, better use of skills/training), “push” factors (a lousy boss, boring work, an increased workload due to under-resourcing), and “sticky” factors (great co-workers, meaningful work, good compensation, few alternate opportunities). If the push and pull are stronger than the sticky, people leave. If the sticky are robust, people stay. Being competent, liking their management/supervision, or liking the work itself, may have very little to do with it.

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