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Is It Possible to Lay People Off Nicely?

Anyone who’s ever had a job has intuited that a happier workplace makes for more productive workers. As a growing body of research lends scientific authority to this concept, more and more companies are doing what they can to cheer up their employees. Google, with its office scooters and free gourmet meals, may be the most famous example, but it’s no longer an anomaly. Airbnb provides each employee with an annual $2,000 travel stipend. Netflix and Best Buy offer unlimited vacation days.

And then there’s HopeLab. This California tech company is trying to brighten even the darkest of work experiences: firing people. Chris Murchison, the company’s vice president of staff development and culture, recently spoke about the counterintuitive philosophy behind this effort. “I think layoffs are a fascinating opportunity to think about how to enliven people," he said.

Getting laid off or fired is never easy. Even so, it’s often harder than it has to be. A cold and tactless job dismissal can sting, and just watching a recently sacked employee leave is dispiriting. HopeLab, a company that builds educational apps and games aimed at improving people's health, has gone to unusual lengths ...

Why Great Leadership Skills Can’t Always be Transferred From Business to Politics

Imagine your new boss arrives, and his first words to the assembled employees are: “Great to be here. I don’t know much about what this organisation actually does because I’ve never worked in this industry. But I’m sure we’ll be fine and I just know I’m the best leader for you all.”

Skeptical? Well this is not imaginary. It happens in workplaces every day. As well as individuals often being parachuted into senior positions at organisations who have never previously been involved in the sector, politicians similarly rotate from office to office.

The fact that British prime minister David Cameron mostly chose to re-appoint ministers to departments they were working in before the election is actually unusual. Between 2005 and 2009 the average length of service for a minister in the British government was just over a year.

Then there’s the phenomenon of leaders switching between business and politics. In the UK there is a high level of disdain for so-called career politicians who lack “real world” experience. In the US, where they are gearing up for elections, we see another attempt to transfer supposedly generic leadership skills from one context to another. Carly ...

OPM Lab Takes the Lead on Innovation

Our federal workforce is talented, passionate, and creative. To harness this spirit of ingenuity, the Office of Personnel Management created the Lab@OPM to help agencies translate the creativity of their employees into innovative action. A recent project with Food and Nutrition Services at the Agriculture Department shows how the Lab@OPM can bring fresh ideas to life.

One of the many vital services that the federal government provides is the National School Lunch Program. Run by USDA, it gives healthy and low-cost or free meals to more than 30 million children each school day. USDA came to the lab with an important, but complex, question: “How can we make it easier for families to provide accurate information about eligibility for the free and reduced lunch program?”

The Lab@OPM was created in 2012 to assist federal agencies in developing innovative solutions to just such complicated problems. These partnerships lead to new ideas about how the federal government can better deliver services and programs. At the heart of the lab’s work is human-centered design, a process that looks at solving problems from the point of view of people who will be using a particular product or service.

To help ...

Navigating the Multigenerational Workplace

Today’s workforce is more generationally diverse than ever before. With more professionals delaying retirement—either by choice or necessity—organizations now have employees from as many as four different generations working side by side. Soon, for the first time in history, a fifth generation will join the mix.

For Nicholas Pearce, a clinical assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, this generational diversity can be an asset, not a liability. But it is up to business leaders to make the most of the shift in demographics. “If it’s not leveraged, diversity can lead to chaos and confusion.”

To make diversity work, Pearce says, leaders need to be more aware of the “pain points” that are likely to cause generational tension. “Many times, the tension is blamed on differences in maturity, when in actuality, generational differences are often the source of the conflict,” he says. Each of the four generations—traditionalists, baby boomers, Generation Xers, and millennials—has a different idea about workplace standards, from communication protocol, to the preferred style and frequency of feedback, to conceptions of whether respect is earned on the basis of experience or competence.

Traditionalists and baby boomers, for example, tend ...

Being a Go-Getter Is No Fun

The phrase “shit hits the fan” has uncertain origins. Some claim it’s a descendant of a World War II adage “the garbage hit the fan.” As the Online Etymology Dictionary has it, it derives from an old poop jokeThe Yale Book of Quotationsdoesn’t have a say on the phrase at all (though “shit happens” is attributed to Connie Eble of Chapel Hill).

In any case, people have probably heard the phrase in reference to something gone awry at work or in life. In either setting, when the shit does hit the fan, people will tend to look to the most competent person in the room to take over.

And too bad for that person. A new paper by a team of researchers from Duke University, University of Georgia, and University of Colorado looks at not only how extremely competent people are treated by their co-workers and peers, but how those people feel when, at crucial moments, everyone turns to them. They find that responsible employees are not terribly pleased about this dynamic either.

To begin, the researchers began by establishing that people do, in fact, assign more tasks to those they perceived as more competent. In ...