Improving the Employee Experience

According to the Partnership for Public Service’s recent Employee Engagement Survey, employees give their federal agencies failing marks. A dismal 39 percent of federal employees think they can actually attract the right people to their jobs. The survey is based off of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM’s) Federal Viewpoint Survey, which measures if feds feel engaged, supported, and motivated.

In a recent interview with Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program, Tom Fox, Vice President for Leadership and Innovation at the Partnership for Public Service, discussed how to start addressing poor employee experience in the federal sector. Whether it’s innovation in recruiting and hiring, utilization, training and development, or appreciation and recognition, there’s still hope to attract and retain a robust federal workforce.

The Challenges
The vast majority of public servants don’t join government for the money – right? So what motivates public employees?

“Ultimately, it’s the day-in, day-out activities that have the most profound impact on their commitment, their satisfaction, and their engagement in doing their actual jobs,” Fox said.

The recruiting and hiring process is a significant problem because not only do federal employees feel they have trouble attracting the right people, but turnover rates in the federal sector are rapidly increasing.

“Based on some of our research, the percentage of millennials government-wide is actually pretty low relative to the workforce as a whole,” Fox said. “Some of that can be explained by the fact that the federal workforce is a little bit more experienced and requires a higher level of education and expertise. But some of it also may be that we’re not doing as well on recruiting and then utilizing those folks once they’re onboard.”

Most leaders tend to blame slow Federal hiring processes, outdated civil service, and portals like USA Jobs. The problems, however, may be more than the HR systems.

Recruitment: The Post and Pray Approach
Fox referred to a colleague of his who describes the federal hiring process as the “post and pray approach,” where you post the job announcements to USAJobs and pray the right person finds your post.

“A better bet is for a senior leader or hiring manager to work effectively with HR to understand the processes they need to follow,” Fox said. “They need to be really hands-on in terms of thinking about what they need in a high-quality applicant and what they can use in the way of the Pathways Program, internships, college graduate programs, and Presidential Management Fellows.”

Fox added, “This isn’t just HR’s problem, and it’s not just a problem with USAJobs. It’s a real leadership imperative to figure out how to work with HR and use those tools effectively.”

Deployment: When the Honeymoon is Over
People can always remember the great reasons why they wanted to dedicate their lives to public service, whether it’s giving back to their country, serving citizens, or changing government for the better. But when it comes to a federal job, the feeling of doing something meaningful might be hard to maintain at times. After a year or so, the honeymoon phase is over.

“Once you get the job, it’s not just a matter of feeling like you’re being well-utilized,” Fox said. “What you’re seeing is real suffering from a sense of being disconnected from an agency’s leaders, the mission and goals of the agency, and the best way of using employee talent.”

“Some try to explain it away, saying that young folks just want to come on and be the deputy secretary the next day,” he added. “That’s not what’s an issue here. It’s really about trying to make a difference.”

Like marriage, these things take time and a lot of work. Federal government needs to focus on its deployment process and keep the “romance” of working in government alive and well.

Fox suggested that senior levels try to meet more often with their employees one-on-one to learn their career aspirations and even hidden skills. “Face-to-face allows for a better connection and a better sense of connectivity to the mission and goals.”

Employees also crave more training and development opportunities. While budgets may be shrinking, Fox emphasized the importance of not using that as an excuse to steer investment from training.

Recognition: A Pat on the Back or a Shout Out?
One of the most important things an employer can do to keep his employee engaged is to encourage the employee with praise or a simple pat on the back. It sounds simple, but it goes a long way.

Leaders should focus on learning the different categories of recognition and where their employees fall. Does an employee like to be praised at a staff meeting? Or would that embarrass the employee when hand-written notes will do?

“As a leader, I think it’s important to make a commitment to recognize my employees in different ways,” Fox said. “I may not always know the right way, but at least they’ll know it’s sincere and that I genuinely appreciate the work they’ve done.”

Asking Questions to Get Started
It may seem overwhelming to adjust the federal process for the employee experience, but there are ways to start. Fox suggests the following: “Start a dialogue with your employees and state, ‘I know there are some things we’re doing well and some things we’re struggling with. Which ones are pain points for you? What can we do about it?’”

However Fox also cautioned against taking on too much at a time. “Don’t try to bite off more than you can chew,” he said. “More often than not, what you’ll be left with are incomplete results and employees who continue to be unsatisfied.”


Photo Credit: Flickr/Steve Koukoulas

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Brenda Dennis

Excellent article! It makes me cringe every time people wonder why government employees are disengaged. There are so many reasons, and none of them are money. Feeling valued at work instead of a pay number. Managers that ask for help instead of give orders. Sharing the vision and direction of the agency, recognition that is sincere, not a certificate copied on somebody’s machine or a longevity award in somebody’s mailbox. The list is endless, but it all comes down to respect.

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