Advice for federal leaders looking over the ‘Best Places to Work’ rankings

December 12, 2012

Tom Fox is a guest contributor to the Washington Post and is the vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

The release this week of the 2012 “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” rankings provides federal leaders with an opportunity to engage employees about their jobs and work environment, and about potential improvements.

The rankings are produced by my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, and Deloitte. They are the most comprehensive assessment of federal employee job satisfaction and commitment, and are based on a government-wide survey conducted by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and additional survey data from nine agencies plus the intelligence community. The rankings also provide numerous insights into a range of workplace issues, from employee views of their senior leaders and supervisors to pay, work/life balance and whether employee skills match agency missions.

Since the rankings were first released in 2003, the degree of “effective leadership” in these agencies has proven to be the key driver year after year for how employees view their workplaces and rate their satisfaction. One of the 12 questions used to calculate the effective leadership category asked how satisfied employees are with the information they receive from management regarding what’s going on in their organizations. Government wide, this question received low marks from employees, with a score of just 48 out of 100.

Every year we hear from employees who tell us that they want their leaders to share the survey results and what they plan to do in response. We also know that employees are more likely to be engaged at work when they see that their ideas and viewpoints make a difference. Based on some lessons learned from federal agencies, here are a few ideas for how better communication from the top can help improve employees’ job satisfaction and commitment.

· Understand your data. When you receive the “Best Places to Work” data, look for trends and compare the results with those other agencies or with other components in your agency. Are everyone’s scores going up while yours are going down, or vice versa? Think back to significant events that might have taken place at the time of the survey. Look for differences among demographic groups. Create a hypothesis regarding possible reasons for the responses. You’ll have time later to test those hypotheses.

· Share the information. Share the good and the bad news with employees and any plans you may have for addressing the issues that have been raised. If these initial findings are relayed by the top leadership, so much the better. When the Department of Transportation saw the biggest improvement among any large agency in 2010, Secretary LaHood immediately issued a message to all staff recognizing the contributing factors to the success and stating future goals for continued improvement.

· Ask employees for help. An employee survey isn’t going to give you all the answers, but it will help you determine what questions to ask. Managers at every level should be encouraged to discuss the survey results with employees. Ask employees for their help in understanding anything about the results that are not clear. This is also a good opportunity to test any hypotheses you may have about what’s driving particular employee feedback. Ask employees for ideas on how the organization can improve. Even top ranked agencies learn not to rest on their laurels. There are opportunities to become an even better place to work.  

· Remember, there are many ways to communicate. Agency leaders are wise to use every communication vehicle available to solicit feedback and advice from employees. Use focus groups, staff meetings, email, an Intranet and newsletters to reinforce the commitment to engage employees. The U.S. Mint saw big improvements last year based in part on the regular town hall meetings held by the deputy director along with the union chapter president of the American Federation of Government Employees. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation — the top-performing agency last year — initiated regular teleconferences with the chairman, established an electronic Q&A box, and even appointed an ombudsman to receive employee concerns and carry them up the chain of command.

· A promise made must be a promise kept. Once you have reached out to employees and solicited their ideas, you must follow through. While you may not be able to or even want to enact every idea, anyone taking the time to share their thoughts is worthy of a response. Agencies waste good will when they fail to close the loop. In the past, NASA has maintained a public Web site tracking employee suggestions and the implementation status. Doing so reminds employees that engagement is not a one-time event, it’s a 24/7/365 commitment leaders make to get the most from their employees and deliver meaningful results to the American people.

What have you done in the past to communicate with employees? Have you witnessed leaders who have successfully tackled employee satisfaction and commitment issues? Please share your ideas in the comment section below. You can also email me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org or click here to find out more about the Partnership’s free webinars and one-hour leadership briefings to help federal managers better understand their Best Places to Work rankings and data.

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