Study: Agencies should work harder to keep employees

Tuesday - 1/18/2011, 9:00pm EST

Ron Sanders, Senior Executive Advisor, Booz Allen Hamilton

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By Meg Beasley
Federal News Radio

Agencies spend significant time and resources recruiting and training top talent but a new study warns that many are ignoring the other crucial side of the equation - keeping those employees. Retention strategies may become even more important in the face of looming pay freezes and budget cuts.

Ron Sanders, a Senior Executive Advisor for Booz Allen Hamilton and former Chief Human Capital Officer at the Office of the Director of National intelligence, told Federal News Radio, "your key employees are always at an attrition risk. The best and brightest can vote with their feet and we need to pay attention to that. And in this particular day and age, when we've got things like hiring and pay freezes, every vacancy becomes problematic. Managers may not be able to backfill."

A new report titled Keeping Talent: Strategies for Retaining Valued Federal Employees by Booz Allen and the Partnership for Public Service offers guidance and recommendations for agencies to help them maintain their workforces and improve their professional atmospheres. The study looked at what factors cause employees to stay with agencies, the retention techniques and tools human resource departments and line managers currently use and which they think are most effective.

This report, said Sanders, is the second of a two-parter. Last December, the previous report focused on attrition, while this one concentrates on retention. "Contrary to conventional wisdom," said Sanders, "the reasons people leave are not necessarily the same reasons that people stay."

This study shows most agencies pay little attention to retention because the attrition rate has been low in recent years. It reports the rate was 5.85 percent in fiscal 2009, a decline from 7.6 percent the year before. The private sector rate in 2008 was 9.2 percent.

However, beneath those rates, the report found attrition varies among agencies, within agencies and from position to position. In reality there are pockets where attrition is a serious problem. The study highlighted three categories of employees who represent attrition risks-those who are new to their agencies, those eligible to retire within the next one-to-five years, and those classified as having mission critical jobs.

Furthermore, the report warns that looming pay and hiring freezes could prompt more federal employees to seek other positions or retire early, magnifying the importance of looking at attrition trends now.

The study's authors say retention is an indicator of the health of an agency.

"Retention of newly hired, top-notch employees means that recruiting and hiring investments are paying off and new skills and energy are flowing into the workplace," the study found. "Retention of high quality, mid-level and senior-level employees means an agency is benefitting from the judgment and experience of seasoned professionals… But high turnover rates may suggest problems in the workplace that need to be addressed."

Researchers conducted focus groups and surveyed representatives from more than 20 agencies to gather their views and to understand the retention challenges faced by line managers and HR professionals in the day-to-day operating environment.

In general, agencies are currently using three retention techniques on which the Office of Personnel Management provides guidance: retention bonuses, flexible workplaces and work schedules and student loan repayment programs.

Responses showed tension and disconnect between line managers and agency/HR leaders when it comes to retention priorities. The report found that many managers do not feel well supported by their HR teams in dealing with individual retention issues. On the other hand, HR departments largely reported being effective in dealing with retention.

According to the study, line mangers typically take a tactical view-focusing on how to retain their individual, valued team members. They use specific techniques and tools, such as retention bonuses and training opportunities to do so.

Agency and HR leaders, in contrast, take a broader view, favoring work/life balance policies such as flexible scheduling to create a good work environment. The report recommends that leaders focus on balancing the concerns of line managers with their focus on agency-wide goals.

In his experience, said Sanders, intangibles are the most important factors in deciding to stay. "If the employee has a connection to the agency mission, if they have a connection to his or her co-workers, if there's a great relationship with the boss - those kinds of intangibles trump whatever else may be going on in the agency or in government at large; things like pay freezes and hiring freezes."