Young feds want to be heard, not ignored

Editor's note: This is the first of two articles on federal efforts to hire and retain younger workers.

Young federal employees don't have it easy. They feel isolated. Their good intentions are interpreted as brash. Those are some of the observations that a panel of young federal employees shared July 27 at the Excellence in Government conference in Washington, D.C.

From those employees, who were introduced as the best and the brightest in the federal government, the lesson for hiring managers was this: If you hire me then ignore me, I'm going to leave.

Asked what could cause her to start looking for another job, Andrea Fisher, a 2004 Presidential Management Fellow at the Internal Revenue Service, said she would leave "if I feel that I'm not valued and not heard."

The panelists, selected to represent a new generation of federal employees, said they enjoy working for the public good. They like the balance between work and home life that they believe they can have as federal employees. They prefer working in an open, collaborative environment, which is not what they find in many federal offices. They also want managers who are willing to spend time with them and open career doors for them.

"I believe in our mission," said Fisher, who works in the IRS' Exempt Organizations Division. "We regulate charities. We stop those who are poisoning the well of our nation's charities and disillusioning people from giving to those organizations."

Having a balanced work life as a federal employee is compensation for a lower salary, said Sonali Korde, a senior technical adviser at the U.S. Agency for International Development's Bureau for Asia and the Near East. "If it was all about money," she said, "I would work for a private-sector firm, but I would have no life."

Adrienne Spahr, an analyst at the Government Accountability Office who previously worked at an engineering consulting company, agreed. "Having time to go to the gym is important to me," she said.

Korde said that her move from the private sector to government has been mostly positive, but the degree to which politics affects federal employees' day-to-day work has surprised her.

"The hardest thing is understanding the bureaucracy, understanding the protocols, the nuances of dealing with people," she said. "In the private sector, you're encouraged to be a little brash. You're encouraged to take more risks."

The panel of young federal workers said they prefer managers who help them avoid missteps and share what they know. Megan Quinn, an information management specialist who works on the chief information officer's architecture team at the Environmental Protection Agency, said she appreciates managers who are willing to tell her when she has violated unspoken rules. For example, she appreciates the manager who told her, "You cross your arms in meetings, and people think you are not listening."

Asked to describe her ideal federal manager, Fisher said, "I want to work with someone who is not afraid to do things in a new way. I want to work for someone whom I admire, who teaches me things every day."

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