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Satisfaction Slows for Gov Employees – 3 Reasons Why

Federal pay, sequestration and uncertain agency funding have weakened federal-employee satisfaction, according to the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint survey.

For the second year in a row, overall employee satisfaction scores fell, dipping below 60 percent this year, reports Federal News Radio.

A sharp drop in employees’ satisfaction with their pay, down 5 percentage points this year compared to last, was the main driver in the sagging employee morale.

So how do you bounce back from the sagging numbers? Tom Fox is the Vice President for Leadership and Innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. He told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that the lackluster numbers are not surprising.

“The numbers are no great surprise. The federal workforce continues to be highly motivated around the work that they do day in and day out. They are certainly feeling the pressures and disappointments associated with the constant pay freezes, the budget cuts and sequestration,” said Fox.

The survey was conducted prior to the shutdown so those numbers are not factored in. More than 376,000 federal employees responded to the survey, which OPM has conducted annually since 2002. Satisfaction with employee pay experienced the most significant declines — down 5 percentage points this year to 54 percent — the lowest in nearly a decade.

The survey matters because…

“The survey is a vital piece of information for senior leaders and frontline workers. The question becomes what are you going to do about the data? You get this information. It is probably no surprise. But you are given a more in-depth picture of what is driving motivation or dissatisfaction in your office. How do you have a conversation with your folks to figure out how you and your team can do to improve. These are very difficult circumstances,” said Fox.

Major takeaways from the survey:

  1. The federal workforce remains incredibly mission focused. They want to find ways to continuously improve their teams and their agency’s operations and activities. That is the good result from the survey. That despite the turmoil that is going on in the federal space there is still that rock-solid commitment.

  2. Pay is growing as an area of dissatisfaction for employees. Most leaders can do very little about that because it is driven by external factors. The Hill and what they allow from the budget. But for leaders maybe you can find alternative ways to motivate folks.

  3. We continue to see leadership scores suffer. One of the areas for greatest improvement is if leaders could communicate more effectively with their employees they would actually see that despite all the other issues that are taking a toll on federal employees they could see their satisfaction grow.

Is it difficult to feel a connection to the mission?

“There has been some bright spots in this area. Because federal workers have been so put-upon publicly perceptions are starting to improve. But it is still a pretty steep hill to climb. Leaders need to focus on the connection to the mission. Whether that is in regular staff meetings, in more informal meetings with your direct reports, you want to try and find ways to continuously make that connection naturally. You can’t force it,” said Fox.

Focus on results.

“You want to focus on results. These are the people that we serve and now here is the benefit that they are receiving as a result of your hard work. Those are two sides of the same coin, being very clear about your goals and outcomes and then focus on results. That coin can help you with motivation. Constant communication is a given in high performing organizations,” said Fox.

Don’t dread the staff meeting

“So often people dread the staff meeting that they’ve seen others hold. But it is your staff meeting, reshape it in the mold that works for you and your team. Work with your employees to figure out what would make sense. Make your staff meetings a two-way dialogue that allows for people leave a meeting not feeling like they have lost 30 mins of their time,” said Fox.

Disconnect between public and public servants?

“You have to tell the positive public service story. If you share the stories it will come back to your workforce and inspire them. It is a way to show great pride in your work,” said Fox.

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Well, of course there is a lot more to effective leadership than communication. I would love to see the scores for ethics and integrity related questions, trust in supervisors, etc. called out in a bit more detail. We still have a systemic problem with bullying, ageism and retaliation in the federal government, and to a lesser extend racism (Black/African American). Until those issues are resolved, the leadership scores will continue to reflect the problems. More here: http://www.whohub.com/meganesque/log

Mark Hammer

The 2011 FEVS survey sample was just over 15% recent hires (<3yrs PS tenure), just over 16% in 2012, and the 2013 sample was just over 7% recent hires. Even though there had been prior declines, if one looks at many of the trends over the past 3-4 years, some of the biggest drops have been in the past year (2013 vs 2012).

One of the consequences of hiring freezes, and reduction in recruitment is that a larger share of employees (and survey respondents) have more organizational and PS tenure. As a rule of thumb, folks who have been working for an organization longer tend to have more sour outlooks, and the more there are of them answering the questions, the worse the aggregate result is going to be.

There IS a downward trend (although ruler-flat results in a number of areas over the last 4 years), but it is exaggerated by the demographc shift in who constitutes “the public service”, at least in terms of how it is reflected in the survey respondents.

Dannielle Blumenthal

I have observed across multiple agencies that most people just want fairness. They are delighted by more and not surprised by less. Outrage in its pure form is rare, but when it happens it is because people have finally had enough.

Mark Hammer

If one looks at the 4-year trend, it is interesting to see some things that have simply not changed at all (maybe by 1%, due to rounding, but no more than that), and other things that have dropped by 7-8 points.

I might just disagree with you though, Danielle, when it comes to fairness. My sense is that people are blasé about more (because they expect fair treatment to be the norm, the default), and outraged at less. That’s one of the reasons I keep making a big deal about survey-year shifts in respondent tenure.

The problem/source, as I see it, is that, as time marches on within one’s organizational tenure, you “collect” examples of what could have been done instead. How one is actually treated may well not have changed, but the number of counterfactual examples (what they did over in THAT work unit, or last year) available to the employee with more tenure just keep piling up, making it harder for the organization, or its agents, to live up to the employee’s expectations. Robert Folger’s “referrent cognitions model of fairness” would predict that such individuals would be less likely to perceive the organization or its agents as fair.

That’s why older employees with more tenure are less positive, and why such surveys can show an apparent trend in decreased satisfaction simply as a result of doing less recruitment into the organization.

I haven’t drilled down far enough, but I suspect that there will be some agencies – perhaps small ones – that have undergone expansion in the recent past, and whose staff think everything’s peachy keen where they work. It may well BE peachy keen, but then it may well be because there are a disproportionately large number of new people there who are likely to think anywhere is peachy keen. Important to keep those two potential sources of causation conceptually separate, and not blur them or confuse them. For two reasons. First you don’t want to mistake whatever they’re doing there as some sort of “best practice” to be emulated elsewhere, if it’s really just a tenure-related artifact. Second, you don’t want other agencies to think they have more of a problem than they really do, simply because they curtailed recruitment this past year.

Eric Melton

There seems to be a perception that Govvies should be happy they have a job, vice having a job where one can obtain raises, be promoted, etc. Lack of raises has been bad enough, but now furlough surprises are downright frustrating…