by Morey Stettner
I like to think the federal government operates efficiently and that it is staffed by tens of thousands of competent, earnest and dedicated professionals who serve the country well.
But then a splash of reality pelts me in the face.
In a recent USA Today article, critics express concern about the high turnover of senior FBI agents both at headquarters and in the field. Observers worry that the government’s chief law enforcement agency may not function as well if its most experienced officials in keyroles keep quitting.
Such criticism sounds sensible enough to me. But as I keep reading the article, I get really scared.
The human-resources executive at the FBI challenges the critics’ perception. He argues that steady turnover of top people enables lower-level agents to rise to the top faster. He assures USA Today that turnover “is healthy.”
Do you buy that?
High turnover rarely signals a smoothly proficient operation. In fact, it’s an excellent indicator of a dysfunctional workplace. Management consultants often refer to it as a “silent killer of productivity.”
Enlightened employers promote talented people into positions of ever-greater responsibility. Meanwhile, senior executives reach their golden years and retire—or stay aboard and find new roles for promising up-and-comers to grow and learn.
I understand the FBI is trying to spin a negative into a positive. But asserting that turnover helps the agency pave the way for more advancement opportunities is hardly a strategy worth emulating.
Here’s a better idea. Hold yourself—and your peers—accountable for high turnover. Scrutinize your orientation program to ensure newcomers hit the ground running. Confirm that everyone receives ongoing constructive performance feedback—and a road map to advance if they so desire.
When employees describe a situation, don’t accept their judgments about others at face value. Dig to learn more. For example, if a worker says, “He got really angry and that made me fight back,” ask, “When you say ‘angry,’ what exactly did he say or do?” Your probing sends a message that you expect employees to back up their judgments with evidence.