How to Retain and Engage the Best Gov Employees

We see it happen all the time. An excellent employee leaves public service for the private sector because their needs aren’t being met in a way that another organization can. In order for government to effectively execute their mission and achieve agency goals, they have to mitigate exodus from the government and find ways to keep staff inspired, innovative and empowered to do great work.

However, retaining the best and brightest is a lot easier said than done for government HR professionals and hiring managers. One solution to the problem of recruiting and retaining star government employees? Holistic human capital management. In order to learn more about how this can empower HR professionals to effectively manage government employee lifecycles, GovLoop brought together John Grill, Director of Strategic Initiatives Group at the National Institutes of Health and Steve Dobberowsky, Principal of Thought Leadership and Advisory Services at Cornerstone, a talent management system and software company, in the recent online training “How to Retain and Engage the Best and Brightest.”

Dobberowsky started the conversation by explaining government agencies are facing several workforce challenges including retirement, increased scrutiny and pressure, getting new talent interested in public service, the perception that there is no room to grow in public service, and the current uncertainty surrounding the public sector. “It is an especially hard time for the public-sector workforce because employees may not be feeling the love internally from management, and they’re also getting scrutinized by the public,” Dobberowsky explained.

While the government work world is continuing to evolve, the work itself is changing, too. Dobberowsky explained that right now there are five generations in the workforce, so it is critical to rework some of the ways that organizations take care of their employees and speak to each generation. The who, what, when, where, and how individuals are working are evolving as more people enter the workforce wanting flexible hours and the ability to work at various locations across channels.

Employees are also looking for different outcomes from their jobs. “When we start looking at what’s important to the workforce, individuals no longer want just cash or salary incentives,” Dobberowsky said. “Employees want to know that their employer has their career development in mind and that they will have flexible work hours.”

In order to foster an environment that employees want, every employee-employer interaction counts. As a result, Dobberowsky recommended some top federal government talent strategy objectives. These include the need to hire and train a diverse workforce; attracting and retaining millennials; improving knowledge transfer from experienced to younger employees; establishing focus and accountability; motivating and reward employees; and using effective succession planning.

Grill explained that following these objectives has helped NIH to transition from a model that expected employees to come in fully trained to a more holistic talent management strategy. “Organizations need to have a systematic approach to getting new hires to get them to do the work you want to do,” he said. “This is not just training but a comprehensive strategy to get employees from where they are to where you need them to be.” NIH has done this through initial training, development programs for every step of someone’s career, and focusing on making sure knowledge is transferred through formal cross training and detail programs.

One of the most critical things to focus on when trying to follow facilitate employee engagement and meet federal government talent strategy objectives is succession planning. “Robust workforce planning needs to really look at the organization as a whole and not just individual teams so if someone in one division gets a promotion to another division it is not a loss to the division but a gain to the organization as a whole,” Grill said

Organizations have to make sure they are developing loose career tracks so that employees and prospective employees see a future in the organization and do not feel like they are stuck in a dead-end job. “Nothing is worse for engagement than people who don’t know what their goal is and what they’re supposed to be doing,” Grill explained.

Looking forward, organizations should focus on meeting employee needs in order to drive engagement and ultimately foster a dedicated public sector workforce. If you’re ready to adopt more holistic and effective recruiting and retaining practices, be sure to listen to the full online training here.


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