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Feedback is critical for the performance of an employee and their organization. To be effective, employees must receive timely and substantive information about their performance and, to be both competitive and retain talented people, federal agencies must provide their employees with adequate feedback that will allow them to have a successful career in the federal government. An analysis comparing private and nonprofit organizations to federal agencies that participated in the 2012 Federal Viewpoint Survey reveals that for some feedback-related issues, federal employees are more satisfied than employees in other sectors and for other issues federal employees are less satisfied. The areas in which federal employees are less satisfied than their private sector and nonprofit peers are worthy of consideration as efforts are made to continue to improve and strengthen the federal workforce. The analysis compared the responses of employees in the 2012 Federal Viewpoint Survey to employees in a sample of four private companies including a law firm, an insurance company, a construction company and an information technology company, as well as a nonprofit health care company.
Federal employees more strongly agreed that their performance appraisal is a fair reflection of their performance than their private and nonprofit sector counterparts. Additionally, federal government employees more strongly agreed that they knew what they needed to do to improve their ratings. These findings may be attributed to the more formalized and transparent system of performance evaluations in the public sector. Employees know how they are going to be evaluated, what they need to do to improve and they believe that those performance evaluations are a fair reflection of their performance. This is a positive and important attribute of the federal government that should continue to be fostered.
Although federal employees viewed the more formal feedback processes, such as performance evaluations, favorably, the survey showed that there are some opportunities for improvement with informal feedback processes. In this analysis, federal employees were less likely than their private sector counterparts to agree that they had enough information to do their job well. This indicates that while the federal government has excelled at the more formalized feedback processes, it would be beneficial to provide more attention to the informal processes that are so critical for information sharing. Much of what an employee learns about their job and the organization occurs (or we expect it to occur) outside of the annual performance evaluation process. Thus the daily, weekly and monthly conversations employees are having with their supervisors about what they should be doing in their position, what their goals should be and what the goals of the organization are, are heard in these more informal feedback situations.
Similarly, federal employees were less likely to agree that managers communicated the goals and priorities of the organization. This is problematic, since it is vitally important that employees understand their agency’s goals, particularly in the dynamic context of the public sector, where goals are not stagnant. Utilizing informal feedback processes, which occur much more frequently than formal feedback processes, to communicate those evolving goals can help to ensure that employees understand what their organization is trying to achieve and how their position can help lead to the achievement of those goals.
Finally, federal employees were less likely than private sector employees to believe that they were recognized for providing high quality products and services. This is an area worthy of discussion since employees can become frustrated at best, or perform poorly or leave altogether at worst, if they are not recognized for performing well. It is true that recognizing employee performance in the public sector is more difficult for myriad reasons. First, according to Hal Rainey in Understanding and Managing Public Organizations, public sector managers are not as free to monetarily reward high performing employees as managers in the private sector. Secondly, according to M. Jae Moon in Organizational Commitment Revisited in New Public Management: Motivation, Organizational Culture, Sector and Managerial Level, even if they were able to receive more monetary rewards, there is a growing body of evidence indicating that public sector employees are not motivated by monetary rewards, so even if they were available, monetary rewards may not be the type of recognition employees would seek.
These findings suggest that a more concerted effort should be made to consider alternative ways to recognize high performing employees that may include providing employees with more informal feedback. Poor performing employees often receive the most feedback from their supervisor, who is trying to improve their performance, but high performing employees also need recognition and feedback about their positive contributions. There is no right answer to how employees should be recognized for their performance, but giving more thought to the way employees are recognized for their achievements is an important step in the right direction.
Effective feedback is certainly not an organizational panacea, but having effective strategies for both formal and informal feedback can dramatically affect an employee’s experience within an organization. Although many supervisors may think that they are providing adequate and effective feedback, these results indicate that there are areas of feedback, such as organizational goals and information about the job, which could be more successfully communicated. Effective feedback can assist an agency in moving forward by ensuring that performance criteria are well-defined, employees have adequate information to do their jobs, agency goals are clear and employees are recognized for their performance. For the federal government to recruit and retain talented employees, these issues, particularly the role that informal feedback plays, need to be more fully understood and utilized.
Author: Meriem Hodge is a third-year Ph.D. student in the department of Public Administration & Policy at the University of Georgia. Her focus is on issues related to organizational theory and public management. She can be contacted at [email protected]