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It’s Time to Erase ‘Seniority’ From the Management Lexicon

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If there is one word that has outlived its usefulness in government management, it’s the word ‘seniority.’  Somehow it sends the message that performance is not important. In the administration of the General Schedule, seniority is the basis for step increases and plays a far too important role in promotions from GS-7 to GS-11. It’s also important, along with technical skills, in other promotions. When layoffs happen, civil service rules emphasize seniority and veteran’s status.

The new exception is a provision in the 2016 Defense authorization bill that makes performance the primary factor in Defense Department layoffs. That highlights another issue—the need for defensible performance ratings to support layoff decisions.

Employees approaching the end of their careers—or the date when they are eligible to retire—seem at times to be obsessed with tracking the days, weeks and months until they can quit. Well in advance of retirement their job focus begins to decline. No other sector pays as much attention to retirement. That has to change to enable agencies to minimize the loss of proven talent.  

I’m all for respecting one’s elders—I am one myself—but seniority concerns have considerably more influence on federal careers than performance. That contrasts with business and with the U.S. culture.  The better performers in business and elsewhere are recognized and celebrated. It’s the basis for MVP awards, A’s in school, game show contestants—the list is long. The value of high performance is recognized today everywhere except government.

It’s interesting that government gives lip service to the importance of attracting high caliber job candidates but then manages them under rules and policies that fail to support and encourage high performance.

The planned workforce downsizing now makes seniority a prominent issue once again. That comes at a time when government is already finding it difficult to attract critically needed talent. If not addressed, it threatens our country’s security. But instead, government continues to move forward with well publicized workforce changes that further damage its employer brand. Government’s brand, its hiring practices and the work experience come together as serious obstacles to adding top talent.

A partial solution to the staffing problems would be to develop policies to help retain at least the better qualified, high performing older workers. In our economy there is a broadly shared view that workers lose value as they age. Supposedly their job-knowledge ages along with their mental and physical abilities. Our culture values youth and vigor far more than the knowledge of how to get things done. But that is not a problem for every older worker. The ages of elected leaders confirm that. There are a number of policy alternatives agencies could consider to retain valued contributors.

An Emerging Management Model

Career progress should depend on performance, not seniority, but developing effective performance management systems has never been a priority. Outside of government, performance management practices are changing rapidly; a new best practice model has not been solidified but the focus of changes is to put greater emphasis on improving performance. Government’s discredited systems should make it that much easier to move to new practices.

The new model rides on redefining the role of managers and supervisors to be coaches, providing advice and suggestions to support the development of people and improve performance. That makes it far more important to select new supervisors who demonstrate people management capabilities. In the new model, a candidate’s technical skills are secondary and years of experience are irrelevant.  

The new model also uses crowdsourcing to collect and provide feedback. The required year-end review session was never valuable. Now, after meetings, at the end of projects, and at progress points, employees receive feedback from everyone involved. Supervisors are expected to discuss the feedback with their people in frequent, informal talks focused on improving skills and results.  

For government, that would necessitate rethinking the supervisor selection process as well as the training to develop requisite, new skills. The best supervisors and managers should be rewarded.

Yes, metrics can and should play a role but only when they track key, job-specific indicators focused on results, not activities.  

Another emerging practice is to move away from the traditional five-level rating scales. Government has never used all five levels anyway, since something like 90 percent of the ratings have been at the two highest levels. The new model relies on three levels, with the goal of identifying the outstanding employees and those whose performance is unacceptable. Typically, only 15 percent to 20 percent are rated as outstanding and less than 5 percent are unacceptable. Everyone rated in the middle level are satisfactory performers.

The new approach to rating performance is combined with significant rewards for those rated as outstanding. Generally, the rewards include bonuses.

A practice that is not new but unused in government is asking committees of peer-level managers to review the high and low ratings. Before those ratings are final, managers need to justify them. It enhances the credibility and consistency of the ratings.

Possibly the only continuing practice is the virtually universal focus on individual performance goals linked to organizational goals. That’s been the standard practice for half a century. A new trend recognizes that plans need to respond to unanticipated events. Circumstances and expectations naturally change as the year unfolds and those changes need to be reflected in goal management.

Support for Seniority Could Impede Reform

If government was still “administering things,” this would be far less important. Given the Trump administration’s reform goals, relying on seniority, however calculated, impedes effective talent management because it provides an unwarranted advantage in granting salary increases, promotions, layoffs, and other employment decisions. In contrast, when those decisions are based on individual capabilities, employees and their organization benefit. Engagement and performance go up. It should also make federal careers more attractive.

However, and this is important, developing effective performance management systems should precede efforts to rethink seniority regulations.

Agencies will need two years or more to transition to new performance systems. New policies and systems will need to be planned, implemented, tested and fine-tuned. Training is essential. It needs to start soon.

Howard Risher is a consultant focusing on pay and performance. In 1990, he managed the project that led to the passage of the Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act and the transition to locality pay. Howard has worked with a variety of federal and state agencies, the United Nations and OECD. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. in business from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of the new book It's Time for High-Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize the Public Sector Workforce (2016), with Bill Wilder.

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