Fixing Reform

Increasing employee satisfaction is a constant uphill climb for managers.

When the Partnership for Public Service released its annual "The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government" study in September, it proclaimed employee satisfaction to be on the rise. One of the primary drivers improving morale was effective leadership, according to the analysis.

In compiling the list, the Partnership and American University's Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation explored whether employees believe managers at their organizations are fostering motivation, commitment and integrity, and managing people fairly. Based on data from the Office of Personnel Management's Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, the report rated leaders' ability to empower employees and to promote professional development and creativity.

"Effective leadership is the No. 1 most important issue for employee engagement," says Max Stier, the Partnership's president and chief executive officer. "That's what the data tells us and it's been that way since we started this work in 2003." Still, leadership is an area where the government falls behind the private sector, he adds.

This creates a conundrum for chief human capital officers and other managers striving to bolster workplace satisfaction. What do these leaders need to do to engage their employees?

Communication tops the list. "Nothing else works if employees don't understand what they're being asked to do and if they don't feel like there's a real channel of feedback," Stier says. Senior managers in particular play a crucial role in linking the everyday grindstone to the bigger picture and keeping employees motivated. "There has to be clarity around what individuals need to do to most effectively connect their work to the organization's vision," he says. "Seeing that line of sight is something good leaders provide."

In addition to the Best Places to Work list, which measures overall employee satisfaction, the Partnership scores agencies in 10 workplace categories, such as effective leadership, strategic management, employee skills and mission match, and pay, work and life balance. Data for these categories also are gleaned from the OPM survey.

NASA ranked fifth among best places to work and second in effective leadership and strategic management. According to Toni Dawsey, chief human capital officer, the agency has worked hard to maintain its top ratings, especially as its mission changes. Several years ago, Dawsey and her team analyzed employee satisfaction to identify which management styles set NASA's high-performing offices apart from the low performers.

The most effective tactics were open-door management policies, monthly all-hands meetings, e-mail messages directly from senior leaders, brownbag lunches, off-site retreats and team-building sessions.

"Those that ranked in the lower end of the survey saw how easy it was to start implementing some of these employee engagement tools and started to do it," says Dawsey, noting that NASA has focused on developing a multigenerational workforce by empowering younger employees.

The Transportation Department also has taken major steps to educate leaders and keep employees happy. Ranking 26th among the 31 best places to work, the department still has a ways to go. But it made the biggest strides among large agencies on the list this year.

In 2009, the department came in dead last, prompting Secretary Ray LaHood to add an employee satisfaction goal to Senior Executive Service performance plans. "[It's] the most important intervention I've seen," Stier says. The department also provides training for all first-line supervisors in leadership, empowerment, employee engagement and ethics.

After this year's rankings were released, LaHood sent a departmentwide e-mail thanking those who contributed to the improvements. But he didn't leave it at that. He established new areas for improvement: encouraging creativity and innovation, expanding work-life opportunities, and ensuring fairness and consistency in performance awards.

When it comes to boosting employee satisfaction, there is always more work to be done.

Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive for three years.

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