Mentoring helps SSA become a better workplace

On the best places to work list, SSA ranked 21st in 2005, this year, it jumped to 7th

At the Social Security Administration, officials have a mania for mentoring. “It’s very much part of the culture here,” said Reginald Wells, deputy commissioner for human resources and chief human capital officer at SSA.

Mentoring is one component of a broad workforce management strategy that has helped SSA move into the top 10 in this year’s Best Places to Work in the Federal Government study, which measures employee satisfaction and engagement. SSA placed seventh among the 30 large agencies in the rankings, which are compiled by the Partnership for Public Service and American University’s Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation. SSA jumped to No. 7 from No. 21 in 2005, when the rankings were last done.

SSA officials said the importance of mentoring is inculcated in employees throughout their careers at the agency. Mentors shepherd new employees through entry-level training. At later stages of their careers,  employees receive mentoring through SSA’s three national career development programs: basic leadership, advanced leadership and Senior Executive Service candidate development.

“Mentoring is a standard feature in each of those programs,” Wells said. “You have to have a mentor to be in the program, and that person is intended to guide you in a variety of ways.”

Sometimes one mentor may not be enough in the SSA canon. “We always encourage our people to have multiple mentors,” Wells said.

There are plenty of willing mentors at   SSA. Wells said seasoned workers enjoy taking younger employees under their wings. It’s a way for them to give back to the agency and establish a legacy.

Although mentoring is a success by most accounts, SSA officials are considering a more structured training program for mentors. At present, mentor training is mostly episodic and informal, Wells said. “We’ve had some of our mentors say, ‘We really want to be better at this.’ ”

Whether its employees had suddenly mastered mentoring or some other force was at work, SSA’s jump from 21st to 7th in the best places to work ranking took some officials by surprise. “It was a quite dramatic increase from 2005 to 2007,” said Robert Tobias, director of the Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation and director of public-sector education at American University.

The rankings, based on data from the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Human Capital Survey of more than 210,000 federal workers, were announced April 19 at a lunch in Washington. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission was the top-ranked large agency, with the Government Accountability Office coming in second. The Securities and Exchange Commission ranked No. 3, followed by NASA at No. 4 and the Justice Department at No. 5. Rounding out the top 10 were the State Department, SSA,  General Services Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and Army Department.

SSA officials said they viewed the high ranking as a potential asset for their recruiting efforts. “It is my sincere hope that anyone thinking about a career in public service will seriously consider Social Security,” said Michael Astrue, SSA commissioner. “We need to continue to hire and retain the best and the brightest for the future.”

SSA, which has about 62,000 employees, has hired about 7,000 new workers in the past several years to replace retiring workers, Wells said.

As part of its recruiting pitch, the agency uses the slogan, “Make a difference in peoples’ lives and your own.” The slogan “speaks to the fact that we serve people who desperately need our support, whether they are disabled, retiring or receiving survivor benefits,” Wells said.

It’s a pitch that young people find appealing, he added. “We tend to get a lot of young folks who really want to get that direct contact.”

 SSA also touts its use of technology to attract technically savvy young workers. “We’ve automated a lot of our processes and become a paperless environment and that has helped people do their jobs,” Wells said.

The agency also uses technology to train employees. “The hottest thing people are raving about is video on demand,” Wells said. “We provide a lot of training to employees at the desktop [using] an interactive video teletraining system.”

Linking such training programs to the agency’s  mission of serving people is also crucial for fostering a sense of public service throughout SSA, Wells said. “I think the mission of this agency really resonates with a lot of people.” 
How SSA improved its best-places-to-work rankingThe Social Security Administration placed seventh in the latest Best Places to Work in the Federal Government study, an indication that the agency is doing several things right. Reginald Wells, SSA’s deputy assistant commissioner for human resources, said other agencies can improve employees’ job satisfaction and engagement by doing what SSA did:

Hire people who support your mission.
At SSA, “we put a lot of emphasis on behavioral-based interviewing so that we don’t get a lot of people coming to us who don’t know what they’re in for,” Wells said. “We find people who are customer- friendly, take to the work and aren’t discouraged by the tough case that comes through the door.” In fact, he added, “they’re probably energized by that tough case.”

Stay the course.
That’s a lesson Wells learned as SSA went from No. 21 to No. 7 in the rankings between 2005 and 2007. “We didn’t do anything differently in those two years,” he said. “We simply continued to do the things that we had promised we would do, and people took notice. If you accept the fact that your most valued asset is your people, then keep doing the things that support your people. That’s really the message.”

Communication with employees is key.
“And it’s two-way,” Wells said. “It’s not just dictating to employees what you want.”

Develop an effective performance management system.
“Analyzing performance is a two-way street,” Wells said. “You have to be very clear about what you want people to do if they are to excel at it. By the same token, they have to be able to articulate to you how they accomplished what they did. It really does put the responsibility for effective communication on both the supervisor and the person being supervised.”

Be agile.
Getting to green on the human capital portion of the President’s Management Agenda is a badge of honor, but you can’t rest on your laurels, Wells said. The needs of citizens can change, agency missions shift, administrations alter their priorities, and agencies must constantly adjust. “You will be more agile if you have effective workers who feel good about themselves,” he said.

— Richard W. Walker

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