How long does it take to crush a federal employee?

Thursday - 8/22/2013, 3:07am EDT

Commentary by Jeff Neal
Founder of ChiefHRO.com
& Senior Vice President, ICF International

The federal workforce has been used as a political football for decades. Feds know the drill: A politician from either party needs to win points with the folks back home on the issue of cutting government. S/he makes sweeping over-generalizations about federal pay, federal employee performance or competence, unions or any one of a hundred other issues, and neatly avoids any admission of complicity in the problem. The "unelected nameless, faceless bureaucrats" are always to blame. If only they could be forced to work and the bad ones fired, our government's problems would vanish, the sun would shine and there would be peace in the world.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Neal

The fed-bashing has risen to unprecedented levels in recent years. Let's take an inventory. It has been 43 months (January 2010) since federal employees have received a general pay raise. Just this week the House voted to allow senior executives to be suspended without pay when accused of wrongdoing. Not found guilty of wrongdoing — just accused. They voted to allow anyone to record any conversation with a federal employee without the employee's consent. It isn't just one party either. A bipartisan majority voted to pass the "Stop Playing on Citizen's Cash Act" to restrict conference spending. Other bills are pending to cripple federal unions, deny feds' bonuses for outstanding performance, cut federal retirement benefits and more.

While that kind of rhetoric may be useful in politics, it is destructive for governance and the people who make up our government. These are not nameless, faceless bureaucrats. They are people. They have names. They have faces. They have families, feelings, hopes and dreams. They also have vital skills the government needs to operate effectively. More important for the government as an employer — they have choices and are free to leave. How long will it take before we crush the federal workforce? What happens if we do?

The damage has started already. Federal retirements are up and continuing to rise. Employee responses to the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey are showing increasing unhappiness. Virtually every question related to morale and engagement showed a decline from 2011 to 2012. Every chief human capital officer I've spoken with believes the numbers will be lower — much lower — in the next round of the survey.

HR offices are reporting more difficulty in recruiting and hiring talent. How easy is it to recruit a new star employee when all you can offer as a motivator is the opportunity to serve and do interesting work? No pay raises and constant bashing by politicians are not exactly strong recruiting incentives. The potential damage is compounded by the fact that morale-induced turnover tends to drive the highest performers out of organizations. They are typically the most marketable and most able to take advantage of new opportunities. Even if you believe government is too big and federal employees are overpaid, is this a good approach to reducing its size? I have never found a credible leader who believes employee abuse is a legitimate management tool.

When I was HR director for the Defense Logistics Agency, we did extensive in-depth analysis of our employee survey data. One finding that stuck with me was how long it took new hires in a bad environment to become disillusioned with their jobs. One field office that had particularly bad ratings had great feedback from employees for the first two years. After that, the ratings dropped like a rock. Based on that admittedly limited data point, it appears it takes two years to crush an employee. After that, the damage becomes more difficult to repair. As the attitudes become more ingrained, they are harder to change. We cannot simply start giving pay raises again and stop bashing the workforce and expect everything to be right with the world again.

Study after study shows the corrosive effects of poor morale in the workplace. Productivity goes down, leave use goes up, discretionary effort goes down, and attention to detail is often non-existent. In her book "Good Company," author Laurie Bassi says, "The trademark of a worthy employer is the ability to masterfully manage the tension between employees as costs and employees as assets." I think that is a great standard — one that the federal government is failing to meet. The political battles today completely disregard the employees as assets and go beyond treating them as costs to the point where they are pawns in a political chess game. If we truly want to have a government that functions efficiently and effectively, it is time for the fed bashing to stop. Have the debates regarding the power and reach of government, but stop treating the federal workforce as though they are the problem. They are not, and they can only take so much before their spirit, dedication and willingness to serve are crushed beyond repair.

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal's blog, ChiefHRO.com and was republished here with permission from the author. Copyright 2013 by Jeff Neal. All rights reserved.


Jeff Neal is senior vice president for ICF International, where he leads the Organizational Research, Learning and Performance practice. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.