How do you hire and retain great people in government?

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This topic contains 16 replies, has 12 voices, and was last updated by  Henry Brown 7 years, 9 months ago.

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  • #148481

    Steve Ressler

    Reading the Steve Jobs autobiography, I was impressed with how much time and energy he spent in recruiting “A” players away from other companies and trying to keep them on the team.

    So…how does this apply to government as government has more cumbersome application processes and more limited rewards structure.?

    How do you hire and retain great people in government?

  • #148513

    Henry Brown

    Keep them interested!

    Of course easier said than done but doable IF management is interested….

    Very little to do with HR, but a great deal to do with first and second level supervisors

  • #148511

    Julie Chase

    Stop the hiring freezes and we’ll talk.

  • #148509

    Mark Hammer

    The notion of “retention” is generally underspecified in such discussions. When we say that we wish to “retain” a great hire, do we mean that the person:

    • remains in the position they were hired for and doesn’t leave it for a long time?
    • switches positions, but never leave that sector/branch/division of the organization?
    • moves around the organization, gathering organizational knowledge, but never leaves the organization?
    • hops from organization to organization but never leaves the public service?
    • leaves the public service but not the public sector? (e.g., they go to an NGO or think tank)

    It’s also not clear how long “retention” is. If I snag a great hire and they stay in my work unit for 3 years, before scoring another job somewhere, is that long enough to consider the “retention” mission accomplished? Is 4, 5, 8, 12 years enough?

    In the case of Jobs and Apple, the mentality behind hires, and that whole “war for talent” thing, is often very different than what we think of in the public sector. As Steve (our Steve, not the dead guy) noted, if Apple tries to recruit someone, that’s partly so someone else doesn’t get them, in addition to whatever value that employee might add to Apple. The competitiveness of the private sector incorporates an element of prophylaxis in hiring. I hire you so THEY don’t GET to hire you. In the public sector, if I’m trying to lure someone to work for me in Labour, but they take a position with EPA, I may have lost a good hire, but government overall has snagged a good one, that will hopefully stay in the system.

    One view of “retention” might emphasize organizational continuity and stability of functional capacity (i.e., no one in my work unit is going to walk out on me before I’ve had a chance to hire another person, have them job shadow for a bit, and acquire “the knowledge”), where I’ll never find myself shortstaffed. Another view might emphasize an approach to retention where hanging onto someone as a broadly-informed corporate resource (e.g., a well-respected strategic trouble-shooter) is the primary objective.

    None of this is a criticism of Steve’s original post. Any one or more of the goals might constitute successful retention, within the context of a particular organization at a particular point in time. The thing is, when we ask for strategies to foster retention, we really need to first specify what WE mean by “retention”, and what it is we are trying to hang onto, in order to help identify what sorts of strategies would be most appropriate, and most successful.

    Finally, there is an awful lot that is simply not within one’s control, and you have to respect those limits. I can think of no better example than the struggle public sector employers have to hang onto hires when an industry, like the oil patch, springs into overdrive and offers double the salary…if not more. Staff development is often a crucial part of making new hires feel valued. While lack of support for career development is often a reason for people to feel little allegiance to an employer and position, at the same time, developing one’s employees can end up making them more attractive to those employers you compete with. It’s a tough line to walk.

  • #148507

    Alan Barta

    One of the major pluses that Steve Jobs and most private employers have is that they can easily get rid of non-A players. In the government we have a great deal of trouble keeping some A players because they prefer to be surrounded by other A players. I think if we were able to do a better job either turning our C, D, & F players into A players or culling them then we would have more success recruiting and retaining A players.

  • #148505

    Rusty Logan

    A Players in Gov’t unfortunately are generally depended on to the level that they are chased away… as others have stated, it is generally difficult to get rid of non-A Players and many in management make the error of demanding too much from their top performers, which can result in discontent and a speedy exit – make the top player an important part of the team but make sure you can offer a tangible payoff for their extra efforts.

  • #148503

    Deborah Lafky

    You could start by being honest with people during the recruitment process. Be up front about what the career prospects are, what it takes to get ahead, how long it will take, and what the prospective rewards are. As someone about to depart after 4+ years, these are some of the main issues that made me decide I would be better off on the outside.

  • #148501

    Jeff S

    Generally the best hires for us is from industry itself. They already know what the working conditions are like and since we have better benefits and pay they usually have no problem working hard. Generally those with college degrees believe they are owed something (higher pay, jump over non-educated seniority etc). Those not as highly educated are motivated to pull themselves up and in many cases have a family that they support and truly want to work.

  • #148499

    Steve Ressler

    Agree with you Jeff. I’ve seen this done a lot in the last few years and makes a ton of sense. Industry already working on site already know the people and working conditions. And by going government they have more power (or control of decision making) at work and usually better benefits. I’ve seen pay go both ways (sometimes more in gov, usually less) but I think people are happy to make that tradeoff

  • #148497


    I really enjoyed this topic and have a question. I am one of the hard working, “A” players that has a true passion for what I do(Financial Management Analyst). I agree and identify with all of the comments below. The issue I seem to encounter, because I end up being the go to person, my professional career growth and mentoring seems to be absent. How do I balance being stretched to thin and ensure I benefit and grow as well. I do take advantage of training offered and sought on my own and I always have a goal that I am working to stay current. Does anyone have any advice?

    Thanks 🙂

  • #148495

    Steve Ressler

    Really like this Mark.

    Personally I’d love to measure retainment as follows:

    -Stays within agency
    -Stays within government

    I think measuring at division or office level is too granular (and probably too difficult). And defining the public sector (NGO, consultant, think tanks) may be a little tricky of where to stop.

    How would you do it?

  • #148493



  • #148491

    Mark Hammer

    One of the activities that the agency I work for has been doing for a while is tracking career movement using a derivative of the pay-file, and the modest amount of tombstone information it contains. When the pay grade changes, or the location code for the pay changes, the working assumption is that the employee has either moved to another job, or has been reclassified in some manner. The reclassification could be because they were promoted via a competition, because they were reclassified in place resulting from an increment to duties, or because they are temporarily acting for someone who is away for some reason. There are plenty of ambiguous cases, but these are verified via followup. Naturally, you have to have a means to be able to differentiate someone who is now getting paid at a different rate in a different place because they have transferred to another unit of the same agency, and a person who has changed agencies entirely. That’s why I say we work with a derivative of the pay-file, rather than the pay-file itself (which is only intended to make sure your pay and benefits are what they are supposed to be).

    As you can imagine, the concern is not with individuals but with overall patterns of movement. It provides a means to measure movement across organizations, and things like how quickly individuals or identifiable groups entering via particular streams move up, as well as pan-governmental “churn”. The result comes in the form of reports like one a colleague published this past autumn (… )

    Not all administrative data systems will necessarily permit this sort of data use, whether because of incompleteness, incompatibility, or some very understandable security concerns. And it does require a certain number of FTEs to generate such information; it doesn’t just happen by a few magical clicks. But as long as people draw a paycheque from a common source, there will be a means to see how long they stay put before switching jobs, using data from admin systems.

    To the extent that point of entry can be linked to a given recruitment program or commencement of some organizational practice, one could hypothetically examine tenure duration within position, and within-organization, as a function of institutionalization of policies or practices. While such an approach certainly provides some degree of precision and comprehensiveness, it obviously doesn’t really shed much light on what the employee sees as keeping them in place, or the weight they give to multiple factors. After all, simply knowing that these people were hired after that practice came into effect doesn’t really say anything about how the practice was implemented in their case, or how they were exposed to it.

    But that said, you certainly CAN ask people about their departure intentions, their departure or stay motivations, and their age and tenure.

    On the theme of stuff you can and can’t control. The 2002 Canadian Public Service Employee Survey asked people about their departure intentions and motives. At my urging, they were asked to give simple importance ratings to each of a list of some 13 or more factors, and also asked to give a yes/no/maybe rating for departure intentions. Using age and tenure, I identified those who were eligible for retirement and had indicated intentions to leave within the next 5 years. I further identified those who had indicated retirement as an important reason for leaving, and divided them up into those whose additional reasons that were nominated as important were those the employer could do nothing about (e.g., family commitments, health), and those that were somewhat within the employer’s purview (e.g., workload/stress, making better use of the employee’s training/skills), and was able to identify a cluster of about 10% or so (don’t quote me) whose departure was, in some sense, “remediable”. That is they were intending to retire but it seemed to be for reasons that the employer could conceivably fix (e.g., via job redesign).

    Now, I do realize the thread is about retaining those one recruits, but the underlying logic is the same as asking about imminent retirees: you develop survey content that addresses their motivation, identifies their circumstances in some organizationally-relevant way, and ask some sensible questions about their departure intentions and job search behaviour. I might point out that, with unemployment and student debt burden being what it currently is, expect to find a LOT of people coming in to jobs they consider to be inappropriate for themselves, simply to have a foot in the door. In a kind of backhanded way, their quick movement to another more suitable job, and the rabid job-search behaviour that precedes it, is a barometer of their desire to remain within the PS. We shouldn’t necessarily view it as a precursor to them waving goodbye. Consider it like fidgiting around in bed before you finally get comfortable and nod off. But again, that sort of interpretation is only comforting if one views the new recruit as adding value to the overall enterprise of government, rather than just one’s own work unit. That’s why I say, you need to think about what you mean by “retention”.

    Is this along the lines you were thinking?

  • #148489

    Paul Wolf

    At the local government level an honest effort of advertising positions would help. In the Buffalo, NY area the higher level non civil service positions are rarely advertised or if they are advertised the fix is already in for someone who is politically connected. I have been on both sides as far as being politically connected and being connected to the wrong political group.

    Hiring people based on their political skills and not their management skills has a negative impact on the morale of all employees.

    Civil Service job descriptions are antiquated and many of the tests I have taken don’t seem to be very relevant to the position. As an attorney I have been interested in positions that are not legal in nature that have required a Masters degree and several years of relevant experience. I have had my applications rejected three different times because I did not have a Masters degree. I have had to appeal just to take a civil service test and argue that a law degree is at least equal to a Masters degree and in my opinion is a higher degree.

  • #148487

    Robert Eckhardt

    I think that you have to know what great people want in a job and then you need to allow them to do that once they are hired.

    Where I work the pace of change is so glacial that no quality people want to work here. Furthermore, the technology and processes used are so out of date that the experience does little to help you find a job.

    Fundamentally government, I really mean local government but this might apply to the federal government too, needs to embrace change. It needs to understand that just because it exists as a result of a monopoly doesn’t mean that it can continue to go on, business as usual, using 19th century business processes and 20th century technology. As government data and process become more open and transparent the shift will be forced.

  • #148485

    Kelly Anderson

    I’ve recruited for agencies in 3 different cabinet positions throughout government. During my recruiter years, I met so many managers who placed false hope in what USAJobs would bring them. They placed far too much faith in what I, as an HR specialist, would do to describe the job (usually a cut-and-paste job from the PD) and how I would phrase screening questions and job descriptions in order to “lure” candidates.

    If you are serious about finding the best people, you absolutely cannot rely on throwing spaghetti onto the USAJobs wall to see which noodles stick. Yes, you must use USAJobs to fill a Federal competitive service vacancy and you must follow the Merit Systems Principles. But you can’t expect that your ideal candidate: 1) knows what USAJobs is; 2) can navigate the search function to find your position; and 3) through sheer serendipity, has found your position during the precise 10-day timeframe HR chose to post the job.

    In private industry, you’d be working with HR on your hard-to-fill jobs to devise a “sourcing strategy.” You’d be thinking of the ways you could drive traffic to your posting through social media channels, industry affiliations and connections (nothing unethical, of course), and word-of-mouth marketing. Feds need to do the same thing to get the right people to use USAJobs at the right time and in the right ways.

    I work now in communications/public relations, and my job isn’t all that different from my 5 years in HR. I learn all I can about the small segment of the world whom I need to reach–where the get their info, whom they trust, etc.–and I use the 4 Ps of marketing to “sell” them on a “call to action” to do whatever it is I need them to do.

    Team up with your HR person to do the same thing. Read the announcement before it’s posted. Have a say in when it’s posted. And if HR won’t give you what you need, team up with your communications/public affairs people to spread the word for you.

  • #148483


    You are 100% right, how do we change this? Hence the reason we end up 8 out of 10 times with the wrong people in many federal positions.

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