How Long Does it Take to Crush a Federal Employee?

I am taking a little time off for the holidays and decided to end the year with a “Best of ChiefHRO” update of my most-read blog post. Sadly, it is still true today (or worse).

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.

The Fed-bashing has risen to unprecedented levels in recent years. Let’s take an inventory. Federal employees went almost 4 years without a general pay raise. 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. Senior executives at the Department of Veterans Affairs lost part of their due process and appeal rights. More recent proposals (2016) would extend the VA changes government wide. 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. There are no nameless, faceless bureaucrats. There 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 significant unhappiness. After years of declines we are finally beginning to see morale numbers picking up in some agencies. 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 or limited 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 2 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.



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6 thoughts on “How Long Does it Take to Crush a Federal Employee?

  1. Very one sided. As a federal employee I see many unaccountable actions and complete lack of performance without consequence and significant inefficiencies that are unchecked and not challenged. As the former HR director of DLA, he implemented several policies that actually made hiring qualified performers more difficult and added to the problem of poor performance. Good employees become discouraged after two years when they learn that the poor performers (especially supervisors) are treated the same as the good ones. That is why we as federal employees are a whipping post. We deserve some of it.


    1. I agree with you on the difficulty of hiring… a picker of people I’m required to meet unrealistic deadlines with a usually disappointing pool of people. HR sets requirements which make absolutely no sense….i.e. requires a PhD for GS11 if they don’t have specific position experience. Are you kidding me? Agencies are proud of the longevity of their employees at the expense of sacrificing new ideas and depth of experience. Job Announcements are often limited to the agency only. As a supervisor my hands are frequently tied no matter how much documentation I have. I’m forced to be at the mercy of my problem employee as we certainly don’t want to offend or hurt their feelings. My other employees wonder why I’m not doing more. I’m simply stuck because HR is not about actually doing Human Relations they are about eliminating any risk to themselves.

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  2. I would suggest that republicans approach the federal government no different than they might a US-based multinational corporation in the manufacturing industry. Incentivize keeping their jobs, but don’t promise it. Offer assistance for starting their own businesses as job replacement, to carry their government experience from public sector into the private sector (including as government contractors, etc. who can provide added value and expertise and cut red tape). Provide job transfers and retraining to anyone who wants to stay and take a pay cut / try something new. Restructure agencies and offices using a data-driven approach. Provide comprehensive counseling and political conjoling of any employees who do get cut and don’t fall into the above category, using safety net funds to help them for a period of time instead of an up-front buyout.


    1. Naahhh, that would make too much sense for the Federal government. They couldn’t possibly do something that demands results. They couldn’t possibly fathom incentivizing employees to prove their worth. Too many Government employees and their Union hacks (AFGE, NTEU, etc.) would cry foul and complain to their congressmen, and then the spineless cowards in Congress would run away from this faster than Hillary Clinton and a subpoena (or more likely, ignore it, as she did). As a federal employee myself (most of my career in the private sector, btw), I’ve seen the ineffectual management and clueless leaders year in and year out spew their useless catchword phrases like “improved culture climate survey results by 342% from previous survey,” while conveniently ignoring the fact that climate results have not improved at all, and ignoring the fact that almost 50% of the staff who took the survey 2 years ago are no longer there b/c they got so sick of the pathetic and unaccountable managers and left in disgust. Or this gem from an SESer: “Align operationalized resources and capabilities across Continental US regions to gain efficiencies.” Are you kidding me? This is an EXECUTIVE goal? Do they even know what that means?? “Gain efficiencies”? Is that even possible in the Federal government?

      Management in the Federal government sucks – it always has and always will, b/c there is no incentive to fire unproductive people when you’re the world’s largest employer. There was a story today that came out about a DLA police officer in the Oakland, CA area, who had just last week been fired from his job, after a full scale police investigation by the Oakland Police Dept and numerous other County and state agencies had found this individual had engaged in prostitution and solicitation of prostitution while a federal employee and on federal time. The investigation and alleged crimes occurred over a year ago!! And this guy JUST LAST WEEK was fired! You just can’t make this stuff up, people.


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