Workforce Management

Will returning feds head for the exits?

man walking away

Now that the government shutdown is over and the risk of default averted, furloughed federal workers will return to their jobs to dig out from a backlog of work. They might be facing more than overflowing email boxes and past-due deadlines. Many will be looking to the exits.

One group to watch is retirement eligible federal workers who could use their annuity payments to fund the launch of a second career.

Currently there are about 650,000 federal workers in their 50s, and this group holds a lot of the government's institutional knowledge, noted Kris Van Riper, head of the government practice at CEB, a consulting firm. While many retirement eligible feds have been delaying retirement because of an unfavorable job market, modest gains in the economy and the continuing uncertainty over the federal budget could drive some of this group to head for the private sector.

"Our own research on employee retention shows that when people have a disruptive past experience, it impacts their willingness to stay in their current job," Van Riper said.

Feds with marketable skills, especially IT workers, are going to be at risk of leaving because of morale issues and private-sector opportunities, said John Palguta, vice president of the Partnership for Public Service. "Many folks who have the option to leave will exercise that option," Palguta said. "We have a very thin bench in many places in government."

Millennials are under-represented in government compared with the private sector workforce, despite increasing churn in the federal employment. According to Van Riper, some of these young managers are likely to reconsider a government career.

"Because the demographics of the federal workforce are skewed toward older workers, it's more important to retain those high performers today. We're concerned about [millennials] because the value proposition they thought they were going to get when they joined the federal workforce may not be what they've experienced, particularly in the last couple of months," she said.

Employee morale is going to vary by agency, notes Palguta. Some civilian agencies, including the departments of Education, Labor, and Housing and Urban Development were in large part shuttered during the budget standoff. By contrast, the departments of Veterans Affairs and Justice were operating at closer to full strength. Civilians in the Defense Department and throughout the intelligence community were initially furloughed, but were brought back to work through legislative action or administrative decisions.

But Palguta thinks the episode will have a deteriorating effect on morale, even in agencies where furloughs were the exception rather than the rule, because of "all of this negative dialogue."

According to Van Riper, federal managers looking to motivate and retain their most valuable workers should be sure to let returning employees know how their work is important to the agency's overall mission, while setting clear priorities on how  best to spin up agency work following the shutdown to avoid employees being overextended. At the same time, managers should ask workers for guidance on what institutional roadblocks are impeding their work, while resetting future expectations in the context of budgetary uncertainty.

Palguta sounded many of the same notes, and also suggested that managers conduct "stay interviews" with their most valued employees. Instead of waiting until a worker leaves to do an exit interview, managers should preemptively discover what it's going to take to get them to stay.

There's news on worker morale due out even before the Office of Personnel Management reboots its retirement application processing operations. The 2013 results of the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey should be released soon after the government returns to full strength. The 2013 survey was conducted before the government shutdown, but during ongoing sequestration furloughs. Palguta expects to see some of the lowest numbers for workplace satisfaction since the survey launched in 2002. The survey was due to be published Oct. 1, but the OPM staffers responsible for its release were furloughed during the shutdown.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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