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Cutback proposals pose leadership dilemma for federal managers

One of HR consultants' favorite talking points amid the recession, as companies have been cutting salaries, slashing bonuses and trimming benefits, went something like this. Pay, they told managers scrambling amid the downturn, is not really as important as you think. Surveys show that what people really value is feeling like they're part of their company's mission or that they're doing something that matters to the world.

In other words, when there are pressures on pay, don't worry about it too much and work on boosting their sense of purpose instead. Whether or not that works in the canyons of Wall Street or the streets of Silicon Valley is debatable; but for many private-sector managers, calling on people's sense of purpose at least represents a largely untapped reserve of motivation.

But what happens when there's already a strong sense of purpose and pressures on pay, and the latter is expected to get worse? That's the leadership dilemma likely to be faced by many managers in the federal workforce, which finds itself in the cross-hairs of a controversial deficit panel's recommendations and a newly empowered Republican-dominated Congress focused on cutting government spending.

It is a long-held stereotype that federal workers are paid too much. In reality, while low-level U.S. employees are paid better than their private-sector peers, higher-level ones are not. Already, reports Joe Davidson in this story in the Post, federal workers average about 24 percent less pay than their counterparts in the private sector, and that gap that has increased in the past year. The calls for cutbacks, he writes, has created "an image of bloated, budget-busting feds that sharply conflicts with the public service motivation that really drives" many federal workers.

The cutbacks the deficit commission's chairmen recommend may go nowhere, of course. Many of their other proposals, from cutting the mortgage tax deduction to increasing the Social Security retirement age, may never gain real traction. But with the wind at the backs of GOP lawmakers, federal workforce reductions--both in size and in benefits--could be tangible. Government employees could see frozen salaries, trimmed retirement benefits and halted bonus levels.

I'm not saying some of these measures might not be essential, given the economy's current constraints and the imperative need to take steps to control the nation's deficit. But the leadership challenge it will leave federal managers with is different than the one their private-sector peers face when cutbacks and pay trims take place.

Purpose, mission and service are woefully underused reserves of motivation in many private companies. When done right, at least some companies--though of course hardly all--can help their employees see that the products they sell change lives, that the services they offer make a difference to the world. Unaccustomed to thinking that way, it could be an untapped well of morale for employees.

But federal managers face a different challenge. Their workforces are already well aware of the public service they do every day. And reminding them of that will be enough for some. But it may do little to provide new drive or new enthusiasm for the most skilled among them--doctors, scientists, engineers--who are also highly conscious of the pay sacrifice they make, too.

Related articles:
Managing the fear of cutbacks among federal workers
Truman-up, Mr. President: The federal debt stops here

By Jena McGregor

 |  November 12, 2010; 6:01 AM ET |  Category:  Economic crisis , Federal government leadership , Government leadership , Public leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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On "dead wood": Young small trees can't afford it, but old large trees can't survive without it. It creates a strong solid structure on which the "live wood" can thrive. Take away the "dead wood" and you have a tree with a hollow trunk, that will likely not survive the next big wind storm.

I see it all the time: the young hotshots only know how to do a few things well. Throw them a curve, or put them in a new position, and they show how raw and inexperienced they are. They come crying for help to the "dead wood," who are often making significantly less even though they've got many years more experience.

Also, some of those old experienced employees might only be working 20 hours out of their 40-hour week because that's all the time they need to get the truly important work done. Instead of criticizing them, perhaps the younger workers should be learning from them.

Posted by: dmm1 | November 16, 2010 2:04 PM

In answer to duhneese: the main reason why the government keeps "dead wood" is becuase there is no guarantee we can back fill the position. For example, if i have an employee who only works 20 hours a week and I fire them, the administration may not give me the budget or the FTE to hire a new employee, which means the ones that are left now, have to fit that 20 hours into their duties. In other words, if I fire the "dead wood" all my good employees suffer, overall production drops, and the taxpayers and bond buyers are getting a lower return on their trust and investments. If I had an ironclad guarantee I could replace employees on a one-for-one basis, the “deadwood” would be booted, the overall productivity would rise substantially, and morale, customer service, and return on the dollar would positively exceed all expectations.

Posted by: MensaMan | November 16, 2010 7:12 AM

I have a double perspective on this question. One of my children is a federal employee and I hate to see her opportunities for advancement curtailed. On the other hand, my husband works for a company that has a contract to operate a government-owned facility. Many of the government employees he encounters are not giving the taxpayers adequate value for their tax dollars. Example: government employee in from out of town shows up at workplace at 11 AM when the workday began at 7:30 and shares anecdotes from his evening at the gambling boat. Any large organization has a certain amount of deadwood; the challenge is to properly identify it.

Posted by: abbyandmollycats | November 14, 2010 8:46 PM

How about if you make federal managers manage their employees? You know, keep track of what they are doing and if the answer is "nothing", get rid of them? There's no reason to do that in many agencies because it's not like that employee's salary affects the bottom line because there isn't one. Keeping them on the payroll and just letting other workers pick up the slack is a lot easier than documenting their performance and dealing with the inevitable union involvement. And they could also do something about hiring in a higher-level series (e.g. attorneys) when a lower graded position would do the same work for less pay.

Posted by: duhneese | November 14, 2010 5:38 PM

Oh, ya'll are up the creek.

Posted by: Nymous | November 14, 2010 6:40 AM


Since you think all Fed workers should cut back why don't we start with you. Repub are looking for volunteers, maybe a week of your states unemployment check would do you some good, be careful what you wish for. If you think the private sector have a job waiting for you touch luck, hope you have a couple of certifications to get a dollar above minimum wage, but then you might not last because you certainly will be in the next wave of layoff because you got too stress from doing 4 peoples job and BTW you have no sick time, so suck it up.

Posted by: ClintonVoter4Obama | November 13, 2010 7:11 PM

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