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Public Sector Supervision and Retaining Good Employees

Just this past June, Gallop reported that 70 percent of American workers hate their jobs. Along with this headline, it was reported that while the vast majority of Americans hate their jobs, they continue to remain in their positions because there are few other opportunities available. As was recently highlighted in PA TIMES, certainly the public sector finds it difficult to retain young, excellent employees. A PA TIMES article mentioned several recruitment and retention practices, most of them being excellent choices that are familiar to most, for example, offering competitive pay. Such exogenous factors have proven to be effective in attracting good employees, but retention is often a function of good, day-to-day supervision or lack of it. Specifically, public managers and their first line supervisors need to reset their expectations by reestablishing and enforcing work and behavior standards. Employees see the inequity of ignoring and tolerating poor performance or inappropriate behavior, and the result is often that most good employees will not remain in a work unit, or if they do, they will not be satisfied.

I recently finished teaching an introductory organizational behavior course. While most students were bemused and skeptical over the many charts, diagrams and convoluted theories illustrated in the textbook, students viewed one traditional theory, the “equity theory,” as refreshingly relevant and practical. All could relate an incident from their work experience where equity had come into play.

My students, who were all currently employed in the private sector (though one previously worked for the federal government), were quick to recount situations where poor performance or unacceptable behavior was overlooked, ignored or tolerated by the supervisor. Students were quick to point out that most often the employee(s) “picking up the slack” were acknowledged by management, yet this situation did not sit well with most employees in the work unit because the poor performer or the behavioral problem continued to be tolerated by the supervisor. Students found such situations to be not right, not fair or inequitable.

When it comes to retaining the good, ambitious and eager trainee, the public manager’s job is more difficult than his or her private sector counterparts, because much of the public sector has built in safeguards and constraints that, while well-intended and considered by some, are essential to supporting sound merit principles. Yet even when understood and accepted, these safeguards work against retaining the highly motivated. Here is an example.

For the public manager, any highly motivated and competent employee (a new, young and energetic trainee notwithstanding), who is eager to advance and willing to accept higher level assignments or projects normally assigned to senior employees, presents an intractable problem. The reality is the public manager should not and cannot allow any employee to perform work outside of their assignments. So new employees capable of doing more are often frustrated. (I would add that anecdotal evidence from students and my associates support that this imbalance, and it is not limited to the public sector, though in the private sector there is sometimes more leeway to allow and to compensate the new, eager employee.)

Now while this scenario is problematic, there is nothing wrong with short-term, higher-level assignments being assigned to junior or trainee employees. It has been my experience that more often than not, a supervisor will exploit a competent and ambitious employee.

The inequity develops when a supervisor ignores a senior employee’s inability to complete assignments, and rather than assign senior level work to the senior employee, the supervisor uses the junior or the trainee employee to accomplish or lead the task. Over time, the supervisor relies less and less on the marginal senior employee and more and more on the junior employee. I’ve seen this happen in the administration of contracts, where during a job-audit, a senior contract administrator could not answer questions about contractual changes and the follow-on negotiations, but a junior team member, often knowledgeable and articulate, had a command of all the facts and issues and had personally prepared the negotiation packages. Then when the contracts manager is confronted with facts, he/she acknowledges the mis-assignment of work, but quickly rationalizes that he or she is managing effectively and making the team productive as possible. In reality, over the years, the weak senior contract administrator has been receiving satisfactory performance awards and perhaps no monetary annual award, while making $80,000 per year. The junior contract administrator has been acknowledged with superior performance ratings and perhaps receives $500 to $2,500 as an annual performance award, while receiving $40,000 to $60,000 per year. So much for equity, or equal pay for equal work.

The answer is not to ignore those who aren’t pulling their weight, and then turnaround and give a pyrrhic reward to those who pick up the slack and perform. Employees see this. Employees see managers and first-line supervisors run away from problems and fail to address problems. At best, the public manager fails to see the inequity of ignoring and tolerating poor performance or inappropriate behavior, with the result that most good employees will not remain in a work unit, or if they do, they will not be satisfied. At worst, the public manager thinks he or she is effectively managing his or her employees and getting the most out of them without creating undo problems.


Author: Don Busi currently teaches general business and basic writing courses at a two-year college in Cleveland, Ohio. Mr. Busi has 34 years at the federal level with the U.S. Civil Service Commission (now Office of Personnel Management) and the Department of Defense (primarily defense contract administration and defense finance). He has worked in HR and in financial management, holding such management positions as Chief, Classification and Pay, Program Budget Officer and Deputy Treasury Operations.


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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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