First, set aside the stereotype that the federal bureaucracy is inherently dysfunctional. Sure, it’s got plenty of faults. But Uncle Sam’s best-run agencies can actually teach private-sector employers a thing or two about HR.
Here are eight lessons employers can learn from the biennial agency-by-agency ranking of federal employers by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service:
1. Push . One thing federal employees love about their jobs: Co-workers cooperate to get the job done. “This is a strength of government,” says Bob Lavigna, VP of research for the Partnership for Public Service. Corporate employees, he supposes, are more likely to compete with each other for money and position.
Lesson learned: Tie rewards to teamwork rather than individual accomplishment.
2. Never stop training. Federal employees are more likely than private-sector workers to say they receive opportunities to improve their job skills.
Lesson learned: If you cut training, you reduce employee satisfaction.
3. Reveal your reasoning. The best federal agencies do a good job of letting employees know how their jobs help fulfill the agency’s mission. “There’s a line of sight between what the employee does and what the organization does,” says Lavigna.
Lesson learned: That link, says Lavigna, is “critical to drive high levels of satisfaction.”
4. Open up. Here’s where the feds got dinged—and that offers lessons, too. The most widespread gripe of federal employees is that their leaders do a lousy job of passing information down the chain.
Lesson learned: Communication helps employees feel more a part of the organization, which breeds loyalty.
5. Nurture tomorrow’s leaders. The primary driver of job satisfaction among federal employees is effective . The best federal employers are respected for promoting from within and retaining employees for the long haul.
Lesson learned: If leadership development and succession planning have fallen by the wayside due to the recession, bring them back to life. Prepare a competent next generation of leaders to step in when the current crop retires.
6. Embrace flexibility. Work/life balance—defined not so much by child care centers or on-site gyms as by managers who acknowledge that employees have outside lives and interests—is a key driver of satisfaction.
Lesson learned: Use an employee survey to find out what employees want, then create a staff- committee to see if it can happen.
7. Don’t stand still. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which ranked first on the “best” list in 2007 and again in 2009, improved its score this year. But if the NRC had been content to simply maintain its 2007 score, it would have lost the top spot.
Lesson learned: Running in place can cause an organization to fall behind in employee satisfaction and commitment.
8. Redefine “employee satisfaction.” Happiness and fun aren’t as crucial, Lavigna says, as “making sure that people feel they are doing important and satisfying work. It’s about putting employees in the best possible position to make a difference.”
Lesson learned: Study your exit interview data to determine why employees are leaving. Plug those holes and strive to make sure employees realize where their roles fit in the big picture.
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