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Is Government Ready for Millennials?


The popular HR website TLNT (aka ‘talent’) posted a blog last week by Ed Frauenheim that should be required reading for every federal manager. The title says it all: “Motivating Millennials: It’s About Pay, a Fair Say, and Solid Management.”

Government needs to reconsider more than the hiring process to succeed in recruiting and retaining well-qualified millennials. Once these young workers are on the payroll, they will want a work environment where they can build their careers.

The research supporting the blog was produced by the Great Place to Work Institute, the company responsible for Fortune’s annual list of “100 Best Companies to Work For.” The analysis is based on responses to the Trust Index employee survey. Researchers compared the responses for the 10 companies millennials (under age 35) rated as the best places to work with the 10 that had the lowest scores. The companies are all vying for a place on the list so they are presumably good places to work.

Among the reasons the top companies were rated highest were:

  • I feel I receive a fair share of the profits made by this organization
  • People here are paid fairly for the work they do
  • Management involves people in decisions that affect their jobs or work environment
  • Management does a good job of assigning and coordinating people
  • Managers avoid playing favorites
  • People look forward to coming to work here
  • Everyone has an opportunity to get special recognition
  • Management delivers on its promises
  • Promotions go to those who best deserve them
  • Management keeps me informed about important issues and changes

Aside from the first issue, the reasons are directly relevant to government agencies. In these companies pay and recognition are clearly important to employees. The first statement confirms employees want to benefit from their work efforts.

The statements largely define how employees are supervised. Each reflects the way supervisors handle certain people-management practices. The behaviors are not influenced by policy or system requirements; they are culturally driven. The questions are also closely aligned with the items used by Gallup and other firms that conduct engagement studies.

The questions in the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey are not the same, but several are very similar. To highlight a prominent discrepancy, the areas where FEVS scores are the lowest—pay, performance management and recognition—are high on this list.

It would be useful for agencies to ask younger workers whether they agree with the Trust Index statements.

Government does offer advantages. The majority of millennials claim that making the world a better place is a priority—they want to make a difference. Recent graduates are attracted by government’s potential to address society’s problems, but surveys show they see government as failing to have much impact.

Since the typical millennial graduates heavily in debt, the student loan repayment program can be important in recruiting. Perhaps surprisingly, salary increases in the first few years, with the automatic annual promotions, are more generous than in the private sector. But the rapid promotions and increases are not widely known; the low starting salaries are.

Government is not going to compete successfully on money. Management style is critical. Every survey of millennials is somewhat different but there are common threads:

  • Millennials are continuous learners. Opportunities to develop their skills are important. They want to enhance their employability. They may be attracted by tuition reimbursement, but leading companies also provide this benefit. Cutting training budgets may have saved money, but it undercut recruiting.
  • They grew up using the Internet for research and are confident they can find needed job-related information.
  • They look to managers as coaches and mentors, not sources of expertise. They are not accustomed to close supervision. They want both autonomy and frequent feedback.
  • They want to work for organizations that support and encourage innovation. A recent report from the Partnership for Public Service, however, shows support for innovation has declined and “only about half feel they are encouraged to do so.”
  • They value the opportunity to move around organizations—not just for promotions, but also horizontally for the new experience and to learn new skills. They are not accustomed to boredom.
  • They look for a relaxed, less formal work environment and fun at work. They are accustomed to frequent, informal feedback and communication. Workplace culture is a high priority.

Agencies should follow the lead of companies and bring together young workers to discuss ways to improve the work experience.

The blog did not compare millennials with older workers, but other surveys, including the FEVS, indicate employees at all levels have similar views. Maybe what’s different today is that millennials are not hesitant to express their dissatisfaction. It’s not clear government is ready to listen.

(Image via Pressmaster/

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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