Is the morale problem at agencies anything new?

Home Forums Leadership and Management Is the morale problem at agencies anything new?

This topic contains 13 replies, has 7 voices, and was last updated by  Henry Brown 6 years, 1 month ago.

  • Author
  • #174669

    See article at The Washington Post:

    Is the story on morale just more of the same? Or is there something new here?

  • #174695

    Henry Brown

    IMO mostly more of the same although suspect that there MIGHT be a trend …

    Suspect that this Washington Post story was based on the data from Partnership for Public Service which was based on the Federal Employee Survey and as such, it MIGHT be a stretch to draw too many conclusions without knowing the details of the survey. Good examples MIGHT be:

    • times employee filled out survey while employed at current agency,
    • number of employees who did NOT fill out the survey for current agency and why not
    • External pressures on the specific agency

  • #174693

    Mark Hammer

    Satisfaction ratings with just about anything have a retrospective, concurrent, and prospective element to them.

    That is, they are partly about what is happening now or in the very recent past, but they are also about the way things used to be, and what we think they might be in the future. Even IF things are pretty decent right now, but we see ourselves on a downward slide, we tend to express less satisfaction. Employees may be responding to current events that have not affected them yet, but are perceived as boding poorly for the future.

    Whether someone accurately remembers how things used to be, or is well-enough or accurately-enough informed, about how things might be in the future, is an entirely separate matter.

    Recent hires tend to be noticeably more positive on these sorts of surveys, in part because there IS no “used to be” for them that might color current events more darkly. And, as I’ve noted on multiple occasions, when the average tenure of those folks responding to an employee survey increases (often because of freezes in recruitment), many aspects of satisfaction and perceived fairness tend to go down when you look at the aggregate results.

    Happily, the content of the FEVS, and the immenseness of the data-set, permit for an enormous amount of fruitful cross-tabbing and even structural equation modelling of causes of degree of satisfaction. I know that a number of academic public admin types have worked with OPM and the data-set in previous years to explore topics of interest like commitment and employee motivation. I’m confident that, with the near tripling of data, this initiative will attract even more folks who can commit their time and insight into doing something innovative with the data that can benefit federal workers, and perhaps workers in thepublic sector everywhere.

  • #174691

    To answer my own question I think that the morale problem is something new – worse than before. I first noticed the downward trend a few years ago. Speaking broadly, based on informal conversation over a period of years, I think it has to do with a few things.

    1 – Increased centralization under the new Administration for greater efficiency – less autonomy for individual agencies, less autonomy for leaders, less autonomy for managers, less autonomy for staff.

    2 – Discomfort with the rapid pace of change and new initiatives. This could be related to the Administration coming from “outside the Beltway” – e.g. traditional Beltway/Washington culture is much slower and more interpersonal vs. this Administration works rapidly and is very techno-centric. (This comment refers to management style not political ideology.)

    3 – Increased scrutiny on (blaming of) federal employees due to the bad economy. Impatience with the civil service culture. Endless headlines about wasteful grants for shrimp on a treadmill. This goes back to #2.

    4 – Restrictions on spending (like no more “tchotchkes”) and budget – leading to lots of ideas but no money to do anything with them.

    5 – Pay freeze, government shutdown, threat of sequestration. Generally the perception that we federal employees are constantly under siege.

    6 – No money or time for serious training. Technology is an important example – #1 is cloud-based collaboration – we can’t seem to get out of the email. We should be out of it. Knowledge management. Data analysis. Visual presentation of information. Not happening. #2 is project management. Serious deficiency. #3 is critical thinking, which comes from advanced education, which should be on-site as a regular part of work. Ideally it would be college coursework – so that people can advance themselves as they advance the mission.

    7 – Inefficient or insufficient change management efforts. Lack of attention to organizational development, human capital, internal communication, alternative dispute resolution, meditation rooms, marking important events with ceremonies, culture committees. Times are changing rapidly, organizations are restructuring, and people expect a high level of customer service (like they get when they’re not on the job when they go shopping or out to eat.) There is a growing disconnect.

    I can think of other things too, such as the proliferation of social media (so that employees can complain and commiserate more easily and more publicly about stuff that has always been problematic – e.g. perceived lack of fairness in decision-making), but these seem like the biggest issues to me in terms of what’s different now than before.

    The other piece of it is – I do not think that the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey captures sufficient information against the metric of “Best and Worst Places to Work.” What makes a workplace good? It’s not only a place where performance is rewarded, or where employees have confidence in their leaders.

    A good workplace is one where people are happy to come to work in the morning, where they are engaged in their work and in the mission, where they are free to innovate, where they can dissent and have their dissent listened to, where they can point out fraud, waste and abuse and not get marginalized or worse.

    Where are questions like this?

    At the very least there should be a free-text section at the end of the survey where employees can add any comment they like.

    If we did more QUALITATIVE research – to include long-answer questions, free-comment questions, focus groups, interviews, and even ethnographic studies (e.g. “mystery shopping”) we would likely get a much better understanding of why the federal employee so often has shoulders sagging.

  • #174689

    Mark Hammer

    I disagree. There is certainly a phenomenological aspect that can come through in free comments, interviews and focus groups. As a guy who both reads thousands of such survey comments each year, and attends focus groups during the development of surveys, I can personally attest to that.

    But there is an awful lot that can come through in traditional style agree/disagree and never/always questions. The trouble is that the folks who approve the questions are generally not looking for strong tests. And by “strong test” I mean a question that provides unambiguous evidence of either serious trouble or shining success. It’s a strong test in the sense that, if your organization or unit still comes through clean, even though there is every opportunity presented to trigger and capture fear, loathing, and misery, then you really ARE doing alright, and not just sneaking past scrutiny under a veil of banal “results”.

    It’s not a whitewash, in the sense of asking loaded questions. Rather, senior officials and bureaucrats are guided by a hope of being able to say some positive things, and they like survey items like that nugget “When needed I am willing to put in the extra effort to get a job done.“, because it lets them say “96% of public servants said that they are willing to go the extra mile to get things done”. I’m sure that’s a message that most public servants would like the public to know…it’s just not the only thing they’d like to convey.

    One of the basic principles of survey design and social surveys is that one needs to include at least a few reverse-scored items, such that respondents aren’t just going down the instrument, mindlessly checking off “agree…agree….agree…agree”. If you look through the FEVS, you’ll see that nearly every single opinion item is posed as a positive statement. So, “I am given a real opportunity to improve my skills in my organization.“, “I have enough information to do my job well.“, “My work gives me a feeling of personal accomplishment.“, etc. The satisfaction items, at least, are pitched in a neutral way; e.g., “How satisfied are you with the recognition you receive for doing a …“, but there is a subtle but fairly pervasive bias throughout to respond in a socially desirable, and positive, way. People certainly CAN respond negatively if they are livid about things, but the more likely outcome, if only because that’s how human memory works, is that they’ll look at an item like “Employees are recognized for providing high quality products and se…” and be prompted to recall instances where that was the case.

    In our (Canadian) federal survey, we ask questions about harassment in the workplace. As one of the co-authors of the questions, I can speak with some limited authority. Although many in management have worn sackcloth and ashes when their results come out, and droned on about zero tolerance, since the first time we asked in 1999 (with no change in their organizational numbers in the last 13 years), there is absolute nowhere in that same survey where employees are asked to depict how much of a pressure cooker their particular work unit operates under. And, as a result, even though I am confident some of what is reported is exactly what comes to mind when you think “harassment”, a not insignificant chunk of those folks who say “Yes, I have been harassed”, are really telling us the story we didn’t permit them to tell elsewhere. If they are under-resourced, constantly facing deadlines, dealing with a disorganized organization, and being asked to put in uncompensated over-time, they will feel harassed. But all we hear from them is that they say they have been harassed, and the rush to judgment is that some particular individual has “gone rogue” and behaved unconscienably. We don’t seek out the conditions that bring out the worst behavior and feelings in people, because we really don’t want to know about them, so that we don’t have to talk about them.

    I dare folks to look through the content of the FEVS and locate items that permit employees to say that their work unit is under pressure from above, or from deadlines, or from turnover/churn, or from unrealistic expectations from the public, or anything like that. Again, not a whitewash, but not a strong test, either.

    Let me emphasize that the purpose of such surveys is not to tell an angry story of marginalized and demoralized people. Not at all. But if you want any hope of being able to mine the resulting data for admirable practices (and we are always our own best source of “best practices”), and identify the circumstances where they emerge and can be applied effectively, you also have to give yourself a chance to know more about the circumstances where things go terribly wrong, or where good practices never really seem to take root, or where the realistic expectations need to be a little lower.

    And that can be done with checkmark questions…really.

    As an aside, after having read well over 40,000 survey comments – some that went on for 4-6 pages – you can’t rely on people providing those comments to be lucid, articulate, or focussed in what they say. They are unlikely to give you bulleted points you can make hide or hair of; especially if they are angry about something. That’s not to say they lack cogent points to make. But all those points are smudged together in a free-flowing near-Joycean stream of consciousness, such that it is rare that you can derive something useful from them. I certainly TRY to, and make every effort to pass on the emotional rawness of their experience to management, in as authentic a manner as possible – I owe them that – but it is largely incompatible with “briefing notes”.

    Chag sameach.

  • #174687

    Chag sameach. Where do we disagree?

    I agree 100%.

    And it’s probably a good point to make – you can ask “good” (methodologically sound) questions that don’t get you anywhere in terms of understanding whether a workplace is actually “good” or bad.”

    Bonus Hanukkah video: “Believe In A Miracle.” (Appropriate!)

  • #174685

    Rita Vaz

    Personally I don’t quite agree with morale being equated with job satisfaction. I love my job, I get to interact and help fellow Americans through my knowledge. I am challenged by the responsibilities assigned to me and feel a great sense of accomplishment when I achieve them at a level greater than expected. I am a proven productive federal employee but that does not help to change anything. My morale is very low because management in my agency does nothing to address culturally related bullying and mobbing. I have to pay a heavy price for being Asian and the related adage that decrees “Go tell a person in authority about these vile actions” does not hold water. No one in my agency is willing to take the necessary steps to correct the wrong that is happening. When bullying and mobbing occur, particularly over long periods of time, it is not just the target who suffers with morale issues. Others too in the work environment who are forced to participate in these actions or be helpless observers of these actions are adversely influenced. In fact it would be in the best interest of management to take action. Instead, I am being forced to take legal action or to opt for the easy solution – to be run off from my position.

    So I love coming to work and I also hate coming to work – what a paradox!!.

  • #174683

    Keena Cauthen

    I can tell you in my personal experience, morale is going down in my office. I work for one of those listed in the article, one of the large agencies, ranked at the low end, and have to agree that in my 10 years with this agency there has been a steady decline in morale. I whole heartedly support the reason for my job… I believe that it is a calling to do what I do and I do it to the best of my ability every day. However, if local management is negative all the time, beats you down with words continuously, if what we get from management from all levels outside the local is negative, it does start to wear on you. Add to that the stress of not having the abilities (technology) or the man-power to meet expectations or to do my job to the best of my ability and it gets worse. A stronger focus on numbers alone, and not on the individuals involved, increases morale issues. When added to the social media storm of “what are they doing, why aren’t they doing more…” and we start to feel like the punching bags of the agency instead of a member of a team trying to reach a common goal. Any technological changes that may be made to assist us in our jobs are either ill-thought out but rushed to use, or are well thought out but so slowly rolled out that they are almost obsolete by the time they reach all levels. Changing how we do things with every change of the wind does not help either.

    Quite honestly, right now we feel like we work in an assembly line in a processing plant… where each case comes across our desk is to be cookie-cuttered into compliance and pushed along, when there are no cookie-cutter solutions to be had. Each case is unique because each case is a different person we are dealing with. But for the most part we do not have time to do our ultimate best for each one, because there are more stacking up behind them and we’re not making our numbers, our assembly line is falling behind and whips are cracked to help “motivate” us. Mandatory overtime is being shoved down our throats, extra money being thrown at us to give up our time off work to work in the office, but there is no additional money to hire additional bodies who could potentially help long-term with this issue? Instead of hiring more people, we are being pushed and pushed to work harder and harder, for a very good cause but at what point does the cause become less important than your health or your family? Work-Life balance is a joke right now in our office… if you’re not at work, you should be — or they start questioning whether you are committed to the cause. Then the threats of losing your job, the job going elsewhere, etc… Just how many years in a row are we to hear this before it’s understood that instead of motivating us, this is just beating us down?

    Sorry… love my job, and I am dedicated to the cause, but yes, in the last few years morale has taken a serious hit and I don’t see any improvement on the horizon. “The beating will continue until morale improves”…

  • #174681

    Rita and Keena,
    I am so sorry to hear what you are going through. And I agree that methodologically job satisfaction and morale can be separated. Good point.

  • #174679

    Earl Rice

    I pondered on the comments here (with the exception of our Canadian friend from the North, where they face a totally different set of circumstances and culture). The US Federal Civil Service is in a mess right now. And, for myself, I know I have no way near the job satisfaction I did in 2002. But, there are a few points that must be made clear:

    1. Surveys can be manipulated all over the place to show whatever the administrator of the survey wants it to show. I found this out the hard way when I ran the figures for an all employee satisfaction survey (that only about 60% took) that was done, and gave the results that came out. I was almost crucified. And when I looked at the previous year’s results and checked them, I couldn’t come up with the high level of satisfaction figures that were released, even when I intentionally tried to first skew, and then flat out lie to make them better.

    2. Further, on surveys, the accuracy of a satisfaction survey will always in questions. Those that are happy will take them. Those that are in the middle and a little happy will take them. Those that are truly exasperated and have given up all hope will not take the surveys. Thus, surveys, voluntary surveys, will always be skewed to show the satisfaction level higher than reality. I know professional surveyors will scream foul, but if you really talk to the people rather than just the numbers, you will find this out. What really needs to be looked at is the number of employees that didn’t take the survey, and then an adjustment made of the results downward to take into account those that show their vote of no confidence by abstaining from the survey. Also throw out the results that have all “c’s”, because these are obviously bogus (ergo the person just went down the list marking “c” or any other answer to get it over with).

    3. What good are satisfaction surveys if management doesn’t bother to do anything to fix the problem areas identified. It’s all a waste of time if there are no plans made to improve the low areas identified. And, with employee satisfaction surveys, this often happens (or more correctly, nothing happens).

    4. In the US Federal Government, everyone is on edge not knowing what the future will look like (maybe as soon as 2 weeks from now). How would you feel not knowing if you will have a job or not in 2 to 3 weeks due to no fault of your own? Oh, and before you answer that, take a look at the RIF rules first.

  • #174677

    Mark Hammer

    Don’t be so sure you’re that different from your Canadian cousins. Our federal managers were instructed to find budget reductions somewhere in the 7-8% zone, to assist in reducing the federal deficit, most of it through staff cuts. At first, the government thought it could be achieved by attrition, but then they found out that maybe only 3% leave the PS annually, so that wasn’t gonna do it. You’ll grin cynically when you learn that the head of the Treasury Board announced on the Monday morning immediately after our federal employee survey came down (on the preceding Friday) that managers’ performance pay would be linked to them making staff cuts. They are SO lucky the next employee survey won’t be until 2014.

    At present, EVERY agency in the PS is cutting staff, some doing it right away, some telling folks they have until the end of fiscal year, and others spreading out the cuts over a 3 year period leading up to the next federal election. The head count and history are detailed here:

    How are the cuts being done? In some instances, pretty straightforwardly. For example, our own agency sized up the various regional offices, flagged the two doing the least business, and decided to close them. Between that, voluntary retirements, and closing our library, we met the goal. (Virtually all government libraries are being closed. It’s a Sengian nightmare.)

    In other cases, it is more of a gladiatorial cage match. A number of employees will receive notices that they are “affected”. The directorate, branch, or unit with the affected employees has some particular staff-reduction goal to meet, and folks will duke it out against each other for the reduced number of positions.

    In some instances, it is fairly painless. So, a unit may be designated to shrink from 38 to 34 positions, with the work normally done by the 38 redistributed. Perhaps 2 of the 38 will decide “Meh. I only had a year to go anyway. I’ll retire now.”, and the two not retained will be found other jobs elsewhere in the organization.

    In other instances, many units will be spared and select units will be designated as having to shrink drastically, or dissolved entirely. We had a case earlier this year where a lawyer in a unit of 32 in the Justice Dept., headed towards having only 11 retained, committed suicide. The guy had apparently suffered from OCD before this, but the dismal prospects for hanging onto his job, and the unpaid overtime spiral the guy put himself into, didn’t exactly help.

    The way the cuts are being decided on can be fairly brutal. Managers have to rate their employees on criteria – which may or may not be understood by all staff – and determine who deserves to retain their job. Keep in mind these are all permanent staff, who may have been in the job for years, so they are not being assessed on whether they are “qualified” for the job or not. Rather, they are assessed for whether the organization/unit needs them to do the work now and in the future. Seniority can not have any direct bearing. In fairness, managers have been sternly instructed that they can not use such retention decisions as a “disciplinary measure”.

    We have heard tales where, in some instances, the managers themselves are competing against their own staff for a reduced number of jobs, and letters of recommendation (from one’s manager) are part of the formula for determining who stays. We also hear that managers may make a determination of who gets retained and who gets dropped, and then have to convene with other managers to defend their decisions against those of the other managers, such that an aggregate number of positions are cut, but no one knows until the 11th hour which units will lose the most. So you can’t even rely on your own manager owing you big.

    Happily, this does not affect everybody, but it affects many more than the 7-8% whose current position will evaporate.

    One of the unforeseen consequences of all of this is that members of the armed forces and RCMP who have been medically discharged are having a tough time getting a civilian position. And the basic reason is that the principle of medical dischargees’ “priority entitlements” was developed for a time/context when departments/agencies were still hiring, and not all cutting. The modus operandi right now is that departments/agencies are trying desperately to find other positions within the organization for staff whose position has been scrubbed. Even National Defense – the traditional place where the majority of medical dischargees are placed – is slashing staff, and unable to place many of these people.

    So, like I say, don’t be so certain that you are alone in your misery.

  • #174675

    Earl Rice

    Your system is completely different than ours. After they get all the volunteers to retire early and they still are faced with a reduction in force, they start putting employees into categories by groups (groups of grades is more accurate). An example can be an office of 16 HR specialist, and for simplicity, make them all GS12’s. You have to get down to 10. You determine who are the 30% or more disable Veterans and put them in one group (let’s say 3), and then there are 3 other Vets that go into a group (total of 6 Vets). The remaining 10, by the use of a formula of seniority and performance appraisals, are placed on a list of non-Veterans. The top 4 on this list will stay and the rest will go. It’s all a mathematical formula. You have to eliminate the non-Veterans before you can eliminate the Veterans. So, with the way the US Federal Civil Service is set up, basically if a Government Wide reduction in force comes about, those with 10 years or less and are not Veterans will probably be let go. Now, in an office of mixed grades, if a person is on the GS12 list and will be eliminated, they could bump a person on the GS11 list, or even GS9 list to keep a job (bump and retreat). This is grossly simplified, but the basics still hold true. I have heard of GS15s that are Veterans causing GS15s that are not Veterans to be RIFed. There are options where they can relocate a person that will be displaced to some other geographically location. Though, relocations usually are not received very well, since few Civil Service employees are willing to leave all their friends, family, house, etc. behind.

  • #174673

    David B. Grinberg

    Dannielle, once again you raise several excellent points.

    My own view is that job morale is based mostly on the leadership of an agency, a program office, or just one’s immediate supervisor or even co-workers — whether in the public or private sectors. Different types of leadership may derive from different places. Yet one of a leader’s most important responsibilities — at least IMO — is to maintain high morale. Thus, a failure of good leadership = low morale.

    On the flip side, a great leader can rally the troops and boost morale to high levels regardless of the cirumstances (sports and the military come to mind). That’s one trait that makes great leaders great. Thus, I think this is more about great leadership than employee morale because one directly correlates with the other.

    Also, in my younger days, I worked for a global survey research/polling firm with clients including President Bill Clinton (then governor and candidate). Thus, it’s worth pointing out that surveys/polls:

    1) represent a brief snapshot in time and are therefore fluid.

    2) are based on relatively small samples.

    3) people don’t always tell the truth for a variety of reasons based on the questions.

    4) polling results are always subject to a magrin of error — which I think is usually under-calculated and wider than the 3-to-5% error rate that is so common.

    Just some food for thought.


  • #174671

    Mark Hammer

    Yep, very different.

    The relevant policies for how we’re doin’ it up here can be found on this page:

    Note that, with a considerably smaller military, disabled veterans constitute a smaller quantity. As noted earlier, medically discharged members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and more recently, surviving spouses of military and RCMP members killed in the line of duty, also have priority entitlements.

    Where our respective systems differ is that, if I’ve understood you correctly, the manager doesn’t really have a choice about hiring vets in your system. In ours, the manager must consider the priority entitlee first, even up to the moment where someone they’ve selected at the end of a months-long competition signs the letter of offer. However, if they can make a defensible case why the individual is not a good fit to the position, they do not have to appoint the vet/entitlee. Similarly, the priority entitlee has limited rights of refusal. So, they do not have to accept a job, if there is relocation involved, or if the working conditions are unsuitable. They can not pass on offers indefinitely, though. The folks who manage the inventory of displaced public servants, and medical dischargees, do their best to only refer people who seem like a good fit to the specs the hiring manager has provided. Nobody wants to do the paperwork involved in refusing referrals, so they try and avoid it by making a match up front. I should think they also want managers to treat these referrals seriously, so they have to maintain the “brand” by referring files that really are a pretty good fit (assuming the hiring manager has done a decent job describing the position and requirements).

    All of this means that you can be in an agency that does not normally have many, or any, vets on its staff, and find yourself referred one.

    Understand, as well, that we abandoned relative merit and top down selection 6 years ago (although managers are still free to use it if they wish). Under the current legislation, a manager may select any candidate who is deemed as “qualified” (meeting all essential merit criteria), based on a defensible “best fit”. So, if it wasn’t an essential qualification, but you had a knowledge gap in your team when it came to advanced SAS programming, and one of the candidates could fill that gap, then you could appoint them, even if others scored higher on all the tests used, as long as that person also meets all the essential qualifications. Come Dec. 31, this system will have been in effect for 7 years, and quite frankly, a lot of folks are still just getting used to it.

You must be logged in to reply to this topic.