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Best Places to Work in the Federal Government data can point the way to better employee engagement

Many government leaders view the Best Places to Work rankings as a benchmark of where they stand, as a way to measure progress over time and as a roadmap for improving employee engagement, workplace culture and productivity. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

The 2017 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings were released this week, providing important insights into how employees view their agency leaders and work experience.

If one believes, as I do, that having an engaged and motivated workforce is critical to a well-functioning government, agency leaders should closely examine the Best Places to Work findings and use the information to fix what’s broken and to improve what’s working.

Many government leaders view the Best Places to Work rankings as a benchmark of where they stand, as a way to measure progress over time and as a roadmap for improving employee engagement, workplace culture and productivity.

Making good use of the rankings requires closely examining the data on a range of issues, from employee perspectives of their senior leaders and supervisors to views on work-life balance, opportunities for professional development, employee recognition, diversity and communication within the organization.

To help agency leaders, the Partnership for Public Service and Deloitte, which produce the rankings every year based on data from the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, have developed a guide entitled Where Do I Go From Here?” that is designed to help leaders dig deeper into the data and work with employees to improve job satisfaction.

If your agency’s scores on pivotal questions in the survey leave a lot of be desired, managers should hold conversations, meetings and focus groups with employees to solicit feedback. Employees should be included in the decision-making process as it evolves, and labor union representatives at the national and local level should be engaged as well. The reason: They can provide important insights and be allies in identifying solutions and helping build trust.

If the data, for example, suggests that large numbers of employees do not feel they have the support of supervisors to take part in training and development opportunities, some soul-searching may be in order. Employees should be quizzed about the types of opportunities they are most interested in pursuing and the obstacles they have encountered, and a mechanism should be developed to help the workforce grow and excel.

Low scores on the survey question that deals with employee recognition for doing good work also should be a sign that something is amiss. To get behind negative responses, agency leaders should ask employees to pinpoint what type of recognition would make a difference — verbal, financial and non-financial forms of acknowledgement— and the best ways to let others in the agency know who is excelling. And a system then should be put in place to ensure there is follow through.

Leaders also should pay attention to the survey question that asks whether the agency has sufficient policies and programs to promote diversity in the workplace, including recruiting minorities and women as well as training in awareness of diversity issues.

Low scores certainly should be a red flag and should lead to some frank discussions about whether a diverse and inclusive workplace is a priority, and what to do about it. In discussions with employees, leaders should be asking whether employees feel comfortable being themselves, can be honest with their colleagues, and whether they face discrimination in the workplace. From a management standpoint, leaders should find ways to address these issues as well as work with human resource leaders to see where recruitment of women and minorities can be strengthened.

The Best Places to Work data provide many insights to what is happening in the workplace. Engaging employees on areas of weakness is essential, but the dialogue will have little value unless the concerns are taken seriously and addressed in ways that are meaningful and that are communicated to employees. Agencies that make the most headway announce their plans to employees, follow through on those plans, provide updates, welcome feedback, honestly assess the results and make adjustments as needed.

Improving employee engagement takes time and effort, but it can make a huge difference for federal workers and for the citizens who depend on a high-performing government.

Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is the vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

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