Commentary: Poor Morale Should Not Be Ignored

Agency leaders should not wait to act until GAO studies the issue.

In March three Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee asked the Government Accountability Office to study the impact of the decline in federal worker morale on recruiting and retention, employee performance and productivity, and achievement of agency mission. The Government Executive story on the request attracted an unusually high 180 comments. Many thought they knew the answers.

The lawmakers clearly understand the gravity of the situation. They stated that worker dissatisfaction “may be compromising . . . government’s ability to serve the American people.”  They asked GAO to document the impact of the dissatisfaction and, for the agencies that have avoided the decline, to identify the lessons learned “as they relate to improved individual and organizational performance.”

If government is like other organizations that have survived precipitous declines in morale, it’s a safe bet that performance on a bunch of measures has fallen. Problems like the “cyber brain drain” and the departure of young scientists and engineers from the Defense Department have already been reported.

Morale is not just low among rank-and-file federal employees—the problem is at all levels of government. There have also been recent reports of growing dissatisfaction among members of the Senior Executive Service. In a survey the Senior Executives Association released last week, “the majority of respondents said the morale of senior executives at their agencies was low or very low.”  Many SESers are considering demotions to non-SES jobs, or “leaving public service altogether,” the survey found.  

The dip in executive morale is important because, as reported by the Partnership for Public Service, “agency [leaders] play a key role in determining and guiding the steps to successfully support their employees.” 

Research by Gallup and others shows that executives and managers are primarily responsible for the engagement of lower level workers. There is a saying that “employees don’t leave companies, they leave managers.” And when they are unable to leave, they turn off, check out and become problems. The Gallup phrase is “actively disengaged.” Those are the employees who voice their displeasure, undermine the efforts of co-workers and otherwise cause problems. The barriers to firing poor performers exacerbate the problem.

One important lesson from similar situations in the private sector is that there are no quick fixes or proven strategies. Companies have learned it takes years to build a strong performance culture. With continuing budget cuts ahead, its whistling past a graveyard to think the decline in federal employee morale can be reversed without a multi-year commitment.

It’s almost as if there has been a concerted effort to demoralize employees. Federal employees no doubt have become somewhat immune to criticism. However, the prolonged pay freeze, furloughs, sequester, restrictions on hiring and travel, and leadership vacancies have all contributed to a deteriorating work climate. Only companies threatened with bankruptcy would allow this to continue.

Government does offer something that contributes to a high performance culture -- a compelling vision and mission, and a sense of purpose that helps employees feel their work can make a difference. That makes leaders and communications central to efforts to improve morale.

The Partnership’s recent analyses of employee job satisfaction build on what government offers and focus on several steps that are consistent with the lessons learned from the “Great Places to Work” companies. Those steps include:

  • Well-liked companies hold executives accountable for treating all workers with respect and for using employee survey data to focus on issues that are known to contribute to employee engagement.
  • They develop shared values and commit to managing day-to-day operations and employees in a manner consistent with those values. They stand for something that provides a sense of purpose for work.
  • They use multiple communication methods to connect employees to the mission and to achievements that contribute to the company’s success. Employees want to be kept informed. The information helps employees feel they are important to that success.
  • They invest in employees. They support employee development, provide constructive feedback, and reward competence. They create career paths to help employees advance their careers. President Obama’s fiscal 2015 budget proposal recognizes the importance of investing in training.

These lessons are also highlighted in the Partnership’s comparison of the government and the private sector. The Partnership has found that federal employee responses fall significantly below the private sector on four questions that make it clear where government is failing. Those questions ask employees if they are satisfied with: (1) opportunities to get a better job, (2) training for their job, (3) communication on what’s going on in the organization, and (4) the recognition for a doing a good job.

“Catch-up” pay increases may not be in the cards, but improving agency practices in the four areas could significantly improve morale.

The annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey asks if there is a sense of trust and respect between employees and their immediate supervisor. That is fundamental to building a “great place to work.”  Federal employees rate supervisors highly but that’s not as true for agency leaders. That suggests agencies would benefit if leaders played a more prominent role as employee advocates.

With years of sequester ahead, morale will continue to decline along with performance. Agency leaders should not wait for the GAO report to address the problem. As a first step agencies should bring together SESrs in focus groups to discuss needed changes to improve morale.

Howard Risher is an independent compensation and performance management consultant. He was the managing consultant for the studies leading to the 1990 Federal Employees Pay Comparability Act. He is the author or co-author of five books, including Planning Wage and Salary Programs.