Why Federal Employees Need a Better Work Experience

The government “brand” is deterring new graduates from careers in public service.

Civil service reform cannot come too soon.  However, replacing government’s antiquated HR policies and practices will have only a limited impact on agency performance or on government’s success in attracting highly qualified applicants. In the books on high performance organizations the HR function is often not mentioned at all.

The hiring process is an obvious problem but government’s brand as an employer deters many new graduates from applying. In a 2013 survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, less than 2 percent of seniors were interested in a federal career.

In a recent video, Director of the Office of Personnel Management Jeff Pon acknowledged the need for reform “to make employment in government more attractive.” Reforming HR policies is clearly necessary but government’s brand is based more on comments about the work experience in federal agencies on websites like Glassdoor and on social media platforms. The critics are not helping.

In building a world class workforce, government could learn from the practices of companies on the annual list of the “100 Best Companies to Work For” developed by the Great Place to Work Institute. This year’s list is dominated by knowledge or service organizations—finance, consulting, technology, and healthcare—all sectors where people, their capabilities and their performance are a strategic concern.  

A Workday interview with the Institute’s President, Chinwe Onyeagoro, highlighted the keys to creating a great place to work:

“The best companies don’t take anything for granted in terms of employee experience, realizing that every interaction with an employee is an opportunity to build, break, or rebuild trust.

There are two important things that you’ll see in pretty much every ‘best’ company.  One is a commitment from the top. Leadership is committed to making sure people are supported to do their best work because they realize the role people play in the company’s success.

Secondly, the best companies are fierce about measuring where they are. They don’t take anything for granted in terms of employee experience. It’s like a muscle—to strengthen it you have to constantly work on it.”

She uses the word “unlock” to refer to strategies to tap the full potential of employees. Far too often jobs have been defined with limits on what an employee can do—they are locked—and that is reinforced by policy, the approach to supervision, and by the organization’s culture. It’s frustrating and costly. The histories of companies like Salesforce, Edward Jones or Genetech confirm what can be accomplished when individuals are unlocked. The country’s history has countless stories of impressive individual accomplishments.

The word and discussion reminded me of my work almost two decades ago for the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency. When the agency and what are now Community Supervision Officers were part of the District of Columbia government, the job was to sit behind a desk and routinely meet with and check off a few boxes related to each offender’s status. The work was close to meaningless. When it became a federal agency and the job was redefined to send CSOs into the community, they were unlocked and energized to make a difference.  

The discussion also made me think of the trend in healthcare to redefine and expand—unlock—the role of nurses. Historically they have had an almost subservient relationship with physicians. Today the Magnet hospital designation is the gold standard, recognizing that nurses play a prominent role in providing patient care. The top performing hospitals, with rare exceptions, are all Magnet facilities. They deliver better patient outcomes, realize better financial results, and their nurses have higher job satisfaction and lower turnover.  

It’s important to emphasize that both the CSOs and nurses pushed to work harder, enlarge their roles and increase their contribution. They welcomed the increased responsibility.

I’ve seen a similar commitment repeatedly in my work starting with summer jobs four decades ago. The untapped and essentially waste of individual capabilities is far worse in the public sector.  

The Institute selects the best employers based on employee surveys and a culture audit. They evaluate employee response on six factors: values, innovation, financial growth, leadership effectiveness, maximizing human potential, and trust. (In government, customer satisfaction would be a possible replacement for Financial Growth.)

Readers should consider how their agency would score on the six factors.

There are clearly federal agencies that at times in our history would warrant inclusion on a best place to work list. Inspirational movies and books tell those stories. However, the heavy retirements and recruiting problems suggest fewer agencies meet that test today.

The characteristics of great jobs are not a secret. Surveys show that for young graduates the most important issue is the opportunity and support for their growth and development. Salary was not in the top 10 of a recent survey (although with other job alternatives employees do not hear regularly that they are underpaid by 30 percent or more). Friday afternoon happy hours or free breakfasts are not essential.

Everyone wants recognition for their accomplishments. Employees want and need feedback to help them improve; they want challenges and opportunities to test their abilities. They also want respect from leaders and they want to be treated fairly.

What is too often forgotten in reform initiatives is that managers and employees need to live with any changes. It’s their satisfaction or dissatisfaction that is the final test. As with technology, HR policies and systems are best seen as tools, and managers and employees are the customers. That may be new to government.

Coincidentally, the current issue of the Harvard Business Review includes an interview with IBM’s head of HR, Diane Gherson (“Co-Creating the Employee Experience”). The company’s approach is worth noting:

“Now we bring employees into the design process, co-create with them, and iterate over time so that we meet people’s needs. We ask them to talk about what’s working and what’s not and to tell us how to improve the system,” Gherson said.

The article focuses on their experience developing a new performance management system.  It’s apparently been a solid success.

But they could have adopted the practice from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency which almost 20 years ago adopted the same approach.  Asking employees what changes are needed or which policies need to be revisited is very definitely the best way to improve the work experience.