Workforce Wonk

By Alyah Khan

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Is an unhappy employee likely to spill your secrets?

Are federal employees who are unhappy with their job more likely to reveal confidential government information?

It seems plausible. Happy employees would be less likely to want to harm their employer. But then, revealing classified information is a serious crime and one would think it would take more than just some discontent on the job to motivate someone to commit it.

National security officials, hoping to prevent more disclosures of classified information such as happened recently through the WikiLeaks site, would like to know whether agencies have thought about the happiness question. Agencies have been instructed to complete their initial post-WikiLeaks assessment by Jan. 28, according to a Jan. 3 memo distributed by Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew.

In the memo, national security officials ask agencies what metrics they use to measure trustworthiness without alienating employees. They also ask agencies if they use psychiatrists or sociologists to measure relative happiness or “despondence and grumpiness” as means to gauge an employee’s trustworthiness.

Jon Desenberg, senior policy director at the Performance Institute, said he was unsurprised by the White House’s concern regarding employee behavior because now there's more understanding about the importance of an engaged workforce.

“Employee engagement is more than happiness – it’s how committed are you to doing whatever it takes to accomplish your agency mission,” he said.

A disengaged workforce not only poses a security threat but can also stand in a way of an agency’s goals, Desenberg added.

He explained that some federal employees might become disgruntled because the government fails to reward high-performing people and has a low turnover rate, leaving dissatisfied and underperforming employees in their jobs for years.

Desenberg said many of these problems have been expressed in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey conducted by the Office of Personnel Management, but federal managers often don’t pay enough attention to its results.

But with the government looking to deter employees from unauthorized disclosures, it might make sense for officials to start paying more attention to what the employees are actually saying about their jobs.

Posted by Alyah Khan on Jan 10, 2011 at 12:20 PM


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