Keeping Up Employee Morale

It’s no new news. Employee engagement and employee morale in government are at an all time low. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report quantifies a drop in what is known as the employee engagement index (EEI). According to the report, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM’s) index dropped from 67 percent in 2011 to 63 percent in 2014.

The index reflects the way employees perceive agency leaders, the workers’ supervisors, and the work experiences of staffers. Many of the downward trends in employee engagement levels coincide with events like sequestration, furloughs, a three-year freeze on statutory annual pay adjustments form 2011-2013, and the recent OPM data hack.

Robert Goldenkoff, Director of Strategic Issues at GAO, recently interviewed with Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program to discuss these results and the importance of employee engagement to boost employee morale.

“Engagement is important because it really affects the bottom line of organizations,” Goldenkoff said. “Studies from the private sector have shown how heightened levels of engagement result in greater productivity, reduced absenteeism, and greater performance.”

At the end of the day, employee engagement can affect agencies’ abilities to carry out their missions. Goldenkoff says there is still cause for optimism, however, in the sense that most agencies actually sustained their engagement levels while a few even increased their scores. But there’s still much work to be done. One of the places to start, besides quantifying engagement scores, is defining employee engagement.

Defining Employee Engagement
“There’s no standard textbook definition of engagement,” Goldenkoff said. “But one of the things we’ve seen is engaged employees all tend to share certain characteristics.”

The characteristics for engaged employees include heightened connection to work, commitment to the mission of the agency, and finding pride and purpose in work. “One way I like to think about it is that engaged employees stay for what they give and disengaged employees stay for what they get,” Goldenkoff added.

In defining employee engagement, it’s also important to identify factors that contribute to disengagement. While federal pay does not tend to play the biggest role in incentivizing employees, pay categories do play a significant role.

“What grade level you were at made a difference, “Goldenkoff said. “For example, those employees that were at higher pay bands, like GS-15, tended to have higher levels of engagement than those at the lower GS levels.”

In government, it’s usually not about salary bragging rights. What Goldenkoff found was that higher pay categories meant greater ownership in work, which ultimately leads to higher levels of engagement. This, however, does not mean that leaders in organizations were scored well by their employees.

“Leaders tended to be the lowest scoring components, as much as 20 points lower, than some of the other components of engagement” Goldenkoff said. “The reason this is important is because there’s a disconnect between what leaders view as engagement and how employees see it.”

At this point, discussion of employee morale and engagement in government may seem like beating a permanently disengaged horse. But the solutions have yet to be fully actualized. Fortunately, there’s still hope for addressing this morale crisis in government.

Improving Morale: Key Takeaways and Solutions
Goldenkoff shared some key takeaways in considering employee morale:

  1. Employee engagement is important for mission outcomes. There are direct links between improved employee engagement and a better-run organization.
  2. You can make a difference. Whether you’re a leader, executive, or even in the lowest pay grade, you can have a significant impact on employee engagement. It’s worth spending time, money, and energy to make it work.
  3. It’s not only what you do; it’s how you do it. Whether it’s communication or management, it’s all important. A blast email to all employees is not as effective for engagement as a personal phone call or a one-on-one conversation between a supervisor and employee.
  4. Engagement is a long-term proposition. It’s not just about improving a score that shows up in a yearly survey. It’s about embedding effective management principles in the fabric of your organization.

Goldenkoff heavily emphasized the importance of communication to improving employee morale engagement – from start to finish. Not only is it important to ensure your employees are engaged while they’re at the organization, but it’s also important to follow up with them before they leave or move on. He suggests turnover data, like employee exit surveys, to give leaders a better picture of how agencies are doing.

The little things can also go a long way. Most federal employees in the field think they’re in trouble when they receive a phone call from headquarters. For employee morale, it’s important to address this dynamic and make phone calls and engagement from the top a regular occurrence. It really can make a difference.

Improving employee morale is about converting the federal sector, and government, to an engagement-oriented sector. Goldenkoff concluded, “Engagement has implications for how we select supervisors, how we develop them, how we train them, and various competencies we look for. It’s really about converting to a culture of engagement.”



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