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The Federal Coach

High turnover: When everyone is jumping ship

Last week in Washington at the Center for Government Leadership, we trained nearly 190 federal leaders from more than two dozen agencies on business acumen. Two questions this week come from federal managers. Please continue sharing your ideas and questions by emailing me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

How can I engage an unmotivated employee? --
Federal manager (GS-14), Small Business Administration

There's nothing easy about motivating your employees. Understanding and tending to their motivations requires almost constant care and attention.

As a starting point, you need to understand why their motivation is suspect. Has the person grown bored by performing the same task repeatedly? Is he having trouble with a new task that he doesn't fully understand? Does he enjoy the work? Is he having trouble with colleagues? The only way to find out is to ask.

Now, there may be any number of factors that could be affecting your employee's motivation. Some you can affect. Some you cannot. If there are personnel conflicts, you can mediate those differences of opinion. If this person does not enjoy performing the work required of their job, you can shake-up their portfolio. However, at the end of the day, the work needs to be performed.

Start by talking with your employee. Try to find out what is affecting their motivation. If you can do something about it, work together to address the issue. If not, help your employee move on to a better fit.

My department has turnover rates of about 60 to 70 percent. Through informal interviews, I know that most people leave because of micro-management and low morale. How can I initiate a discussion about our leadership skills in the department? --Federal manager (GS-14), U.S. Food & Drug Administration

Surfacing this data provides a useful starting point for discussion and action.

You should encourage your leaders -- with support from HR -- to look at your department's data from OPM's employee viewpoint survey to see there are any underlying issues around morale and retention. If you don't have data for your department, you might consider conducting a short, informal employee survey.

You might also consider 360-degree assessments -- anonymous surveys of a leader's employees, peers and superiors -- and executive coaching to inform your department's leaders about their strengths and weaknesses.

Finally, you might quantify the "costs" associated with losing folks -- recruiting costs, the opportunity costs of interviewing, productivity losses -- as a way of building a business case for change. For more ideas on this check out, Linda Bilmes and Scott Gould's book The People Factor: Strengthening America by Investing in Public Service. Note the profile of Jeff Neal's work at the Defense Logistics Agency in the book; he's now the Chief Human Capital Officer at DHS. That might provide you with some additional ideas.

By Tom Fox

 |  July 2, 2010; 6:38 AM ET |  Category:  Ask the Federal Coach Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

People are jumping ship from my agency so much that it makes rats on the Titanic look like homesteaders. We had to tell the boss what his vision was. We had to tell the boss what his mission was. Someone like that has no business being in charge of anything that involves additional human beings.

Posted by: hofbrauhausde | July 5, 2010 6:19 PM

Hi again--
Continue to enjoy your column and advice to federal employees. As I have indicated before, the advice is good for any sector.
High turnover is often an indicator of individual poor supervisors. In conducting exit interviews for an organization (and I would advise every agency to consider conducting them), the most common cause was a single "boss" who made coming to work and performing every day, a major challenge to the employee.
Suggestion: select a trustworthy (as in someone who can gain and maintain confidences, someone who has that reputation. It may not be an HR person!!) to be designated as the one person to conduct an exit interview for every individual leaving the department (or agency). Every person signing the paperwork to leave is asked to attend a confidential interview, and they are all asked the same questions. (By the way, most people welcome the opportunity for a final word; few decline the opportunity) The data is then collected (annually) and no names are included. The information can be summarized annually (or more frequently, if desired) by department, gender, length of service, reason for leaving (pre-identified categories),etc., and provided in summary form to each department, and in collective form to the head of the organization. It becomes educational and quite informative to those at the top. It could easily become one of the topics in an annual management/leadership forum.

Posted by: trotter1 | July 5, 2010 2:09 PM

Being a retired Federal empoyee, I know from first hand experience how micro management can affect an employee. ait is demeaning at least for me, but being a stubborn Irishman I let my boss go ahead and do the job for himself as it was then done the way he would have done it. Not that I didn't know how to get it done because I did and had been doing it well.

But my main concern was the challenge. Once I had mastered a position and performed well in it, I ready for a bump up the ladder, it never came. That is one of the main reasons why I retired as sonn as I did. I would have quit at one time but I had retirement as a goal so I stuck it out. But there were several of my peers that did quit over the same thing. Lack of promotions being handed out for performance

Boredom will advance employee turnover.

Posted by: donc711 | July 5, 2010 10:56 AM

One manager lamented high turnover, but admitted to micro-management. He has identified one of his enemies, his management style. Good employees don't need it being done to them. Those who need it are probably the ones who haven't quit, because they enjoy the personal attention. The work of the organization is important, to be sure, but trust in the people you hire is just as important. When they know you have their backs and your trust is in them, they will carry the load and be responsible workers. When you are always down in the depths of their work, they will seek a better climate and they will leave you scratching your head. But you will be satisfied that YOU were the ultra manager. Here's hoping that you can do all of the work by yourself, because a dissatisfied employee may not tell HR the whole story (they tell a believable line that sounds plausible), they will speak to the issues among friends and those people are likely NOT going to apply for the jobs.

Posted by: ronjeske | July 5, 2010 9:41 AM

If someone is not motivated by the mission to start with, it would be difficult to convince them otherwise.

A federal job without any passion towards the mission would be a real drag, like having someone beat you with a stick for the sake of watching paint dry.

Give me a challenging mission, train me and trust my judgement and I will be a fully engaged employee bent on making a difference. Motivation follows mission and is nurtured by trust.

After 33 years I still love my job and the mission it represents.

Posted by: mbenefield | July 4, 2010 6:38 PM

Scott Gould rocks at VA. Linda Bilmes is the hottest professor at Harvard Kennedy School. Jeff Neal is the smartest CHCO in Washington. Hurray for this team!
Go read THE PEOPLE FACTOR BOOK ! (Seriously, these guys are the real stuff - not just a bunch of jargon).

Posted by: bogemin | July 2, 2010 10:20 AM

Jump! Jump!

Posted by: jjoyce6018 | July 2, 2010 8:20 AM

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