Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

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Federal Coach: How to keep your federal workers from looking elsewhere

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

The federal workforce is shrinking, as more and more employees leave government and the rate of hiring declines. Unfortunately, this also comes at a time when the demands upon government are growing.

While this trend is hardly surprising given the current budgetary and political climate, it is incumbent on federal leaders to look behind the numbers. They need to see exactly who has departed at their own agencies, why they left, what steps need to be taken to keep highly qualified employees, and what will be required to maintain a workforce that can achieve short-term agency goals and long-term missions.

According to an analysis by my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, retirements made up the largest category of departures, accounting for 54 percent of all separations in 2013 — reflecting the graying of the baby boom generation and the loss of much experience. Many of these older workers, for example, served in the Senior Executive Service.

Yet attrition rates also were high among entry-level employees (not a good sign for the future) and among those in the General Schedule levels 11, 12 and 13 (experienced hands who could be groomed as the next set of leaders). And to top it off, many of those leaving held some of the most high-demand occupations – doctors, nurses, engineers and IT talent.

While many factors come into play regarding employee attrition, savvy leaders can take several steps to avoid being caught off guard and to help ensure they have the workforce they need.

Examine the data. While the Partnership’s analysis examined government-wide trends, agency leaders need to look at their own departure data regarding grade levels, age, years of experience, gender and ethnicity as a starting point. You cannot make decisions or map a strategy without understanding the trends unique to your agency and identifying issues that require attention.

Review exit interviews. Of course, you can’t review what you don’t have, so if your organization is not systematically gathering feedback from departing employees, now is the time to start. There are many reasons why people leave a job. One might assume that budget cuts and pay freezes are at the root of some employees leaving, but that's not always the case. Individuals may have received better opportunities elsewhere, felt frustrated by a bad supervisor, not seen a clear career track or path to advancement, or may just have felt stifled in the work environment. There are some situations beyond a leader’s control, but others may manageable — like finding incentives to retain high-performing employees.

Consider conducting “stay interviews.” Don’t wait for an exit interview to find out why someone is leaving. As a preemptive measure, managers should have conversations with valuable employees. A stay interview is designed to surface factors leading to an employee’s satisfaction or dissatisfaction, so that you can proactively create a better work environment and hopefully retain the best employees.

Get ahead of the curve. Engage in succession planning by taking a look at where future openings in management or key technical jobs are likely to occur, and who is in line and ready to fill those jobs once they become vacant. Part of that requires grooming replacements and providing individuals with opportunities for new and challenging assignments where they can prove themselves and grow. Don’t forget to also take into account changes in the skills and competencies needed in the future. Changes in technology, mission requirements or resources may dictate a need to recruit people who are different than those who are leaving, or a need to invest more heavily in the training and development of those who are staying.

Please share any stories regarding why employees are leaving the government, and ways in which leaders can retain top notch employees. You can post a comment below or send me an e-mail to fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Sep 29, 2014 at 6:45 AM

Reader comments

Wed, Oct 1, 2014 vancouver washington

the problem with exit interviews is that if the employee tells the supervisor things that are negative, there are no guarantees that the supervisor will pass on the information, especially if it reflects negatively upon them, their supervisors, and/or the entity they work for. What is stopping the supervisor from retaliating by contacting the former employees new supervisor (assuming they remain a federal employee)in a manner that is drogatory to the employee? as we have all seen in the news some have no regard for the laws, especially in regards to anything that may be construed as 'whistle blowing'.

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