By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Union attitudes and government performance

Shutterstock image (by Ismagilov): businessmen holding check boxes, decision making concept.

The other day I had an informal lunch presentation at Harvard with about 70 GS-15 federal government managers (and military counterparts) for an executive education program. A large number of their questions were about federal human resources issues. (Students are asked to come to Cambridge prepared to discuss a "current management challenge;" HR is one of the most common themes.)                                       

One of the questions I got was about what I thought of 360-degree evaluations. I said it was not a topic on which there exists much academic research (for either the public or private sector) and that I didn’t feel I knew enough to venture a definite opinion.

Perhaps embarrassed by the non-informative nature of my reply, I threw the question back on the participants, asking how many of their organizations used this technique, and whether on balance they thought the results were positive, negative or neutral. Somewhat over a third said 360-degree feedback was used where they worked, and of those, easily two-thirds thought the effects were positive.

As a matter of pedagogy, I always like to hear from the class minority, so I asked those who said the technique had a negative effect to explain why. The person I called on turned out to be the HR chief for his organization, and his answer was fascinating.

“This has just created huge problems because of the attitude of our union local," he said. "First they say they didn’t want to do this because giving feedback is management’s responsibility, not the workers’. Second, they said that if we wanted employees to do this, we would need to pay them overtime for the time they spent on it, or renegotiate the contract."

How can I count the ways the attitudes expressed in that anecdote sadden and upset me?

First, the idea that managers do one group of activities, employees do another, and never the twain shall meet harkens back to a 19th-century workplace -- though back then it was used by bosses to resist employee efforts to gain more involvement and influence over what went on in the workplace. In a 21st-century workplace, employees -- particularly the new generation of employees -- generally welcome the idea of becoming more involved and engaged on the job, and indeed often see this as a differentiator between good and bad places to work.

The more the workplace reduces traditional distinctions and boxes, the more fulfilling work generally is. The attitude toward employee roles that this union local’s viewpoint expresses will scare younger workers away from federal jobs. (To connect this to a theme of my blog post earlier this week, can you imagine how employees in the Silicon Valley would react to this mindset?)

Second, the suggestion that employees be paid overtime for offering feedback produces in me a reaction like that to chalk scratching a chalkboard. In a 19th-century world of adversarial bosses out to wring every extra dollar from employees and nothing else, an “it’s not in my job description” reaction from workers might have been understandable or even appropriate. In today’s federal workplace, however, it is, frankly, offensive.

Partly it goes against the same desire by employees that I just discussed, to have their job responsibilities broadened, not narrowed. Partly it expresses a formalized, bureaucratic approach far removed from this generation's attitudes. And perhaps most importantly, it fundamentally insults the view that in government organizations, workers and managers should have a very strong common interest in generating good performance that serves the American people.

If 360-feedback helps agencies perform better (by providing useful information and/or by helping an agency recruit and retain good people), everyone in the organization should welcome it. Yet there is not even a trace in the attitude this union reportedly expressed about commitment to a mission, or commitment to public service.

Retrograde attitudes such as the one this agency manager recounted are, thankfully, not universal among federal employee unions, but they are far too common. They are devastating for efforts to improve the performance of government, and to recruit smart young people into it. And, given that popular hostility to government performance is the main force driving efforts to roll back the influence of unions in the federal workplace, such attitudes are even self-destructive from a union’s own point of view.

All of us need federal employees committed to the mission rather than constantly objecting that something is not in their job description. We do not need attitudes that were becoming outdated even at the beginning of the 20th century, let alone the 21st.

This upcoming week is Public Service Recognition Week. I join others in celebrating and recognizing public service this week -- and, indeed, every week. But for public employee unions, the name of this event needs to have an additional significance. They must show a recognition that public service is the central job of public employees.

Posted by Steve Kelman on May 01, 2015 at 8:06 AM


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