The Best or Worst: Government Has a Choice

Managing people, not systems, makes the difference.

Last week, Fortune magazine published the 2015 “100 Best Companies to Work For.” This year’s list includes 13 health care providers. Ironically on the same day, the Veterans Affairs Department, which operates more than 1,700 health care facilities nationwide, was described in a congressional hearing as “a terrible place to work.”

A report on the annual employee survey used to compile the list says health care “employees’ sense of pride in their work—an essential component of a great workplace—consistently ranks highest amongst survey participants . . . employees regularly see the tangible, positive and immediate impact their work has in the lives of others, making it easy to see how pride has become health care’s greatest strength.” In fact, pride is common in every truly successful organization because it contributes to high performance.

The report highlights four strategies for making a hospital a great place to work:

Fostering communication and transparency. One of the keys to maintaining a healthy work environment is making employees aware of progress on achieving goals and resolving problems. They want to know what’s happening.  Health care depends on communication, teamwork and collaboration. “Management by walking around” is an effective strategy in health care.

Promoting employee health and wellness. Health care is physically demanding, and the exposure to serious illnesses is always a threat. That and the level of responsibility make the work stressful. The best hospitals emphasize employee safety and health. According to the American Psychological Association, that contributes to a positive and productive work environment.

Including employees in cost-cutting and change measures. Change is always difficult. The key is involving front-line employees, who are fully qualified to address problems. Employees want to know their ideas are valued. Involving employees contributes to their buy-in. The track record in government is far from satisfactory.

Connecting people to purpose. Having a sense of purpose at work is important in making a career choice and a source of motivation. Health care is often physically and emotionally challenging. These hospitals emphasize the importance of the work in internal communications and in publicizing hospital achievements within their local communities.

The report also summarizes the core values that make the work experience stand out across the 100 companies, including a commitment to:

A consistently great employee experience. Ninety percent of the people employed by the 100 Best agree with this statement: “Taking everything into account, I would say this is a great place to work.” How many federal employees would make a similar statement?

Treating employees fairly regardless of personal characteristics. Across the 100 Best Companies, 94 percent of employees on average say that people at their company are treated fairly regardless of gender, race, age and sexual orientation.

A favorable physical work environment. Fully 97 percent of employees report they have a safe workplace—the highest rating of any survey statement—and 91 percent believe their facilities contribute to a good working environment.

A caring, welcoming and friendly workplace. Ninety-four percent of employees report that theirs is a friendly place to work, and that new employees are made to feel welcome. Further, 90 percent report that people care about each other at their company.

A number of the information technology and professional services companies on the list are prominent government contractors. Their employees interact regularly with their federal counterparts. And it’s worth noting that these companies are competing for the same talent.

Across the 14 IT companies on the list, 89 percent of employees say they look forward to coming to work. The report also notes that IT employees look for careers with meaning, impact and real time growth and learning.

Also on the list were 20 professional services companies, where employees report:

  • A strong sense of respect for employees as professionals
  • Excellent training and development opportunities
  • A belief that leaders are competent, honest, ethical and communicate a clear vision
  • A strong sense of teamwork

To emphasize what may be obvious, the strengths of these companies are not costly policies or systems. The strengths are a reflection of the way employees are managed. Nothing precludes VA health care facilities from emulating the policies and practices of the hospitals that ranked among the 100 Best Companies. There are challenges, to be sure, but government could and should be a great place to work.

These companies tackled the challenges and created workplaces where employees trust their leaders, have pride in the work they do, and enjoy the people they work with. That’s the definition of a great workplace. The 100 Best are able to attract and retain employees far more effectively than their industry peers and tend to outperform their competitors. These organizations should be a model for government.

Howard Risher managed compensation consulting practices for two national firms and has written four books, including Aligning Pay and Results. He has an MBA and Ph.D. from the Wharton School.

(Image via Teerapun/Shutterstock.com)

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