By Dan Gephart, July 17, 2019

It was 24 years ago this month, and I vividly remember that heart-pounding march from the desk I shared with a fellow reporter to the Editor’s office. The newsroom boss — we’ll call him X – was very talented. He was even more intimidating. And I was about to, for the first time in my professional career, tell my boss I was resigning.

At first, X offered the usual — a slight raise and a few minor perks. I felt flattered and appreciated. Once I made it clear that my decision was final, however, the mood abruptly turned sour. X looked me directly in the eye and ominously said: “You’re going to regret leaving the newspaper business.”

X scared the heck out of me.

In hindsight, though, X’s threat was pretty ridiculous. That small suburban newsroom never had as many employees as it did on the day I resigned. It now has fewer than half. In the mid-90s, the newspaper business began a slow steady decline that has accelerated in the last few years. About 3,000 newspaper employees have been laid off or offered buyouts within the first five months of this year, according to Bloomberg.

I share this experience so that I can ask you this question: If a highly productive young employee came into your office to give her two weeks’ notice, would you feel confident enough to reply: “You’re going to regret leaving the federal government”?

We’re in trouble, folks. There are more than twice as many federal employees 60 years and older than there are federal employees under 30 years old, according to FedScope data. That retirement tsunami never really hit, but darn if those big waves don’t keep lapping up on our shore. We need to bring in young talent to continue our agencies’ very important missions, many of which are at critical junctures. Yet, those agencies still haven’t figured out how to consistently hire young federal employees. There is also good reason to believe that they’re losing the ones they were able to hire.

The FedScope data is based on information as of September of 2018. It’s reasonable to think those figures will continue to get worse. Just look at what has happened since last September:

  • A highly politicized and soul-crushing 35-day shutdown that fell over the end-of-year holidays.
  • Multiple announcements from agencies planning to scale back their telework programs.
  • A member-less Merit Systems Protection Board. (And remember: The Board has lacked the quorum necessary to make decisions on cases for more than two years, leaving thousands of employees and their agencies in employment limbo.)
  • A proposal to dismantle the Office of Personnel Management, the agency responsible for federal workplace policy. (If you’d like a more positive take on OPM’s potential demise, my colleague Ann Boehm found a silver lining.)
  • Bills to extend probationary periods.
  • Proposed legislation that would basically make federal employees at-will, returning civil service to the spoils system.

The federal government is not looking like an ideal place to work.

What does this have to do with you, FELTG reader? A lot. As federal leaders, supervisors, HR professionals, and EEO specialists, you either manage people yourself or advise those who do.

Look at any survey of why people leave jobs and you’ll see poor performance management at the core. They may say “bad manager,” but it’s the same thing. Nothing drives a good performer to frustration more quickly than seeing a poor performer skating by. I know. I’ve watched it happen quite often in previous jobs. But don’t trust me. Just read any Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey over the last several years. There are way too many federal employees who think their managers are not holding bad employees accountable.

Behind those draconian bills in Congress and the wariness of young, talented job-seekers is the biggest and most damaging myth about federal employees: They can’t be fired. And there isn’t one iota of truth to that.

Are you one of those managers who cowers at the thought of accountability? Do you advise one of those managers? Well, you better learn how to hold employees accountable or get out of the way.

Anyone who has attended FELTG’s signature program UnCivil Servant: Holding Employees Accountable for Performance and Conduct or read the book (now in its 5th edition) can tell you how to remove an employee for unacceptable performance in 31 days. If you haven’t attended the training, scroll back and re-read the article by FELTG President Deborah Hopkins that leads off this month’s newsletter — We Don’t Need Civil Service Reform. Deb gives you the simple steps to address poor performance and misconduct. It doesn’t get any easier. Print the article, and be on the lookout this summer for the next two installments in Deb’s series. If you still need inspiration, then scroll back to the article – Ann Boehm’s Good News feature It’s Perfectly Legal to Talk to Your Employees — and it Can Net Results! There is a lot of wisdom in those two articles.

You should also find a way to get to our Managing Federal Employee Accountability next week in Portland, Ore., Barbara Haga’s Advanced Employee Relations class in Norfolk, Va., from September 10-12, or the three-day Developing and Defending Discipline: Holding Federal Employees Accountable, starting September 17 in Atlanta. You’ll leave each class with a lot of specific guidance on how to handle the accountability challenge.

Look, it can be done. Wouldn’t it be nice to hire and keep good talent? While we never want our talented employees to leave, wouldn’t it be great to be able to say to the departing worker, with a straight face: “You’re going to regret leaving the federal government.” Gephart@FELTG.com

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