FDIC, Surface Board rely on communication to take top spots on 'Best Places to Work' list

Thursday - 11/17/2011, 5:06am EST

Jason Miller, executive editor, Federal News Radio

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The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation completed a 180-degree change in the satisfaction of its employees.

Over the last six years, the FDIC went from worst to first in the Partnership for Public Service's Best Places to Work annual survey and rankings.

"We were surprised and thrilled, frankly," said Martin Gruenberg, the acting chairman of the FDIC after the awards ceremony in Washington Wednesday. "It's a wonderful recognition and I think what makes it special in a sense is it's the employees recognizing themselves for the outstanding work they do and the commitment they bring to the very important public mission of the FDIC."

FDIC jumped two spaces to capture the top spot from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the 2011 list, released Wednesday. It also was the most improved large agency, increasing its overall ranking by 5.8 percent.

NRC finished second overall and the Government Accountability Office, the Smithsonian and NASA round out the top five.

In the small agency category, for agencies with less than 2,000 employees, the Surface Transportation Board received the top ranking for the second year in a row.

"I think I heard the day before yesterday, and I was on the road in Alabama in my hotel room, I was jumping up and down," said Daniel Elliott, chairman of the Surface Transportation Board. "It's not old hat. It's very exciting."

Overall across the government, employee satisfaction dropped by 1 percent to 64 percent.

Six-year project

FDIC's move to No. 1 came after bottoming out in the rankings in 2005.

"There were two factors I'd point to and it was a multi-year effort. The employees of the FDIC understand well the mission of the agency to preserve the security of people's bank deposits," Gruenberg said. "We've gone through a severe financial crisis and the FDIC has really a history of rising to the occasion."

He also credited former FDIC chairwoman Sheila Bair, who left the agency in July, for transforming the way the agency works through decisive leadership during a challenging period.

"I think the combination of an agency with a strong sense of commitment and understanding of its mission combined with strong leadership helped to account for the improvements we've seen," Gruenberg said.

One major focus area for the FDIC was communication.

Gruenberg said the agency promotes conversations in both directions, from management about their goals and from employees about how they are achieving those goals.

"We've implemented a program called Culture Change that is really focused on these issues of communications from top to bottom and back up, and across divisions," he said. "It's really been a major priority for the agency. I think employees at all levels have responded well to it."

A council made up of management and employees comes up with recommendations for improving communications.

As part of the program, FDIC employees and the chairman hold a conference call quarterly to raise issues and get an immediate response. Gruenberg said the call has been effective in addressing concerns.

The FDIC also gives employees a "suggestion box" on its website to help further discussion on improvements.

"What's really satisfying is you can hear directly from employees," Gruenberg said. "You hear everything from the profound to the mundane in terms of the questions that you hear, but it gives you a direct feel for what's on employees mind and a direct connection and ability to communicate and there is enormous value in that."

Regular meetings with employees

Elliott, from the Surface Transportation Board, attributes their success to many of the same reasons as FDIC improved.

He said communication happens all the time. Elliott meets regularly with employees as a group and individually.

"When extremely difficult things happen like government shutdowns and things of that nature, we had an agency meeting just to discuss what would happen in the event of those circumstances coming about," he said. "Also, I try to manage by walking through the agency a lot. I try to pop in and say 'Hi,' I think people enjoy that."

Elliott said he also holds open office hours at certain times during the day for employees to talk to him.

"We also did a separate survey of our employees and tried to build off of that," he said.

Elliott said to stay on top, the board already is figuring out where it can improve.

"We will review the Partnership's numbers. We've already started to look at them," he said. "There is a committee that has been formed to see areas we can improve in."