Government shutdown may sink workplace engagement, hike turnover

The impact of the partial government shutdown on federal employees will unfold long after it ends, creating an HR nightmare. Experts say engagement levels, including employee dedication, may plummet and turnover may increase.

The impact of the partial federal government shutdown will likely extend long after it ends, and HR managers should expect a decline in workplace engagement and an increase in turnover. Experts point to millennial-aged workers as the most at risk for leaving.

The government annually measures the engagement of approximately 1.5 million civilian federal workers. It considers the findings an indicator of employee "dedication, persistence and effort." The dedication levels are high, according to this year's survey.

But the government shutdown could test this dedication. It is close to matching the longest ever federal shutdown: the 21-day shutdown in late 1995 into 1996. The latest shutdown will reach that milestone Jan. 12.

It's unclear whether the federal government's HR systems are flexible enough to adapt to the problems the shutdown creates. Its once-a-year engagement survey takes months to complete, and annual surveys are increasingly being criticized as too backward-looking.

Private sector firms are shifting away from annual surveys for this reason. Pulse engagement surveys are being used by some agencies, but it's not certain if federal HR managers have the software tools to quickly measure and identify engagement problems created by the shutdown.  

The U.S. has an ongoing effort to modernize its HR systems, and the White House has pushed the idea of organizational agility in HR management to adapt to complex and unpredictable problems, including budget issues. But its systems are a combination of legacy on-premises software for core HR coupled with cloud-based services, such as those used for hiring. Upgrades are complex and happen slowly. Experts were hard-pressed to see a technology fix to the problems created by the shutdown, which they described as painfully fundamental.

"When you don't pay people, it tends to make them feel less engaged," said Gail Golden, management psychologist consultant at Gail Golden Consulting in Chicago. That may sound like an understatement, but Golden said the government is violating "a fundamental deal" between employer and employee.

"The longer it goes on, the more damaging it is," Golden said. A serious worry for federal HR directors will be retention of top talent. "The better people are at their jobs, the more they have other alternatives," she said.

A test of employee dedication to mission

The government may be counting on a high level of employee dedication during the shutdown, based on the workplace engagement results from the 2018 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

Mallory Bulman, vice president of research and evaluation of Partnership for Public ServiceMallory Bulman

When asked if they are "willing to put in extra effort to get their job done," 96% of 2018 survey takers gave a positive result, said Mallory Bulman, vice president of research and evaluation at the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that works with government officials on workforce management issues. Moreover, 91% agreed with the statement that they "look for ways to do their jobs better," and 90% "believe their work is important."

"These are really critical questions," Bulman said. "And when you tell a mission-focused workforce that they can't go to work, that is profoundly frustrating," she said.

Younger federal employees may be especially affected by the shutdown's impact on workplace engagement, according to Bulman. Less than 6% of federal employees are under the age of 30 and represent half of all people who leave an agency within the first two years, she said.

If millennial-aged workers can't come to work, "that really does affect whether or not they want to be at their agency," Bulman said.

What motivates employees isn't necessarily the pay itself, but "being treated fairly and feeling valued and respected," said Talya Bauer, professor of management at Portland State University in Oregon and president of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology.

The best employees have options

When you don't pay people, it tends to make them feel less engaged.
Gail Goldenmanagement psychologist consultant at Gail Golden Consulting

The best employees have options, and "a major concern is that the brightest, hardest-working, and most capable, dedicated government employees may opt out of government service and take jobs in the private sector," Bauer said. The shutdown could hurt the reputation of the government as a good place to work, she said.

The federal engagement survey has some 100 questions. Although employees score high in some of the most important metrics, when the data is dissected agency by agency, weaknesses in employee engagement emerge.

In an analysis of the most recent federal engagement data, the Partnership for Public Service found 60% of federal agencies saw their scores decline, Bulman said.

The two primary drivers of employee engagement are leadership, including an employee's direct supervisor, as well the political leadership of an agency, Bulman said. The second is the "skills, mission-match, [or] the extent to which a person feels that they can make a difference at the mission of their agency," she said.

Bulman said she believes the high number of leadership vacancies and turnover at agencies have played a role in the engagement problems at some federal agencies.

It will be the job of HR managers to try to repair the damage once the shutdown ends, the experts said.

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