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Social Security Administration Talent Retention

The Partnership for Public Service reported the Social Security Administration (SSA) dropped from second to sixth rank for employee satisfaction and commitment of 19 large federal agencies surveyed in 2012. The greatest contributing factor to this decline is employees’ view of management. Social Security Administration employees ranked Effective Leadership – Empowerment 15 of 19 and Effective Leadership – Supervisors 16 of 19. The ranking of 13 of 19 for Performance Based Awards and Advancement identified the response most reflective of the root cause.

Career advancement was severely stifled for employees hired shortly after the 2008 economic recession, and has worsened since. This is due to multiple factors, including hiring freezes, reductions in management opportunities, previous management mindsets, and reductions in networking opportunities.

Employees typically take between 2 to 4 years to master entry-level occupations at the SSA. After this learning period, some employees are prepared or preparing to excel to the next level. This is usually a technical expert or supervisory position. Before 2008, these employees would merely volunteer for temporary positions and/or seek additional career advancement opportunities. Later, this increasingly was not the case.

In July of 2010, hiring freezes began primarily due to a backlash from worsening conditions in unemployment and budget constraints. Since more employees were leaving the agency than hired, the SSA naturally shrank. This caused a loss in the utilization of talented employees critical to the organization in two primary ways. First, and most obvious, is a loss of a talent pool due to minimal recruitment. Second, movement was restricted since the SSA no longer had employees to fill a vacuum of entry-level employees. Phillips and Edwards’ 2009 book, Managing Talent and Retention, defines critically talent employees as those who “…drive a major part of the… (organizational)…performance and generate above average value for customers…” (p. 11).

In response to public outcry stemming from economic conditions and increased budget problems, networking opportunities and leadership development opportunities nearly ceased. The year 2011 marked the last chance to participate in Special Opportunities to eXcel (SOX), Fresh Incentives for Regional Excellence (FIRE) and Upward Bound developmental programs. These programs propelled potential managers’ careers by offering diverse educational opportunities, and most importantly, networking opportunities. Perhaps the most significant career stifling action was the cessation of the Employee Exchange and Rotation Program. This allowed employees to experience temporary work outside of their immediate organization, and simultaneously allowed managers to test the value of employees outside of their span of control.

The loss of networking opportunities has accelerated talent loss in the management positions. A typical SSA office consists of 20 to 60 employees. Management opportunities are available occasionally. A single SSA manager, from position opening to candidate selection, determines hiring opportunities. Although posted throughout the agency, candidates that have had an opportunity to work for the managers in a temporary setting have a distinct advantage over others. First, when managers open management jobs, they often have the outcome in mind. This is simply a risk reduction method played by managers, reducing conflict and incompetence risk. Second, selection tends to fall within that manager’s comfort zone. Therefore, employees closest to management, relationally and proximally, have the greatest probability of selection. For the manager, this localizes candidate selection to incorporate only current employees, former employees, and temporary employees that they have had extended contact with in the past. Since employee movement has stagnated, selection often is restricted to known employees not previously selected to equivalent management positions. Using a sports analogy, these are second, third, and fourth round draft picks.

Compounding the issue of talent retention is the overall loss of employees. Losses due to retirement are surely healthy; however, in the last several years employees are exiting the SSA at an increasing rate. Performace.gov reports that recent losses are not from management, but primarily entry-level positions, such as contact representatives, clerks, assistants, and management and program analysts. Not surprising, considering the stifled opportunities. Agency costs of losing talent are high, resulting in lost recruiting, selection and training costs. Yet, according to the Viewpoint Survey, senior management appeared to be unaware of this growing issue.

While the index score of all employees averaged 66.4 of 100 for overall satisfaction and commitment, Senior Executive Service (SES) employees average 80.8, a whopping 14.4 point spread. Unfortunately, this was an indication that SES employs were out of touch with employees throughout the organization or experience an alternate reality. Perhaps this is due to the increasingly centralized tendencies of the SSA, a byproduct of increased information disbursement and monitoring capabilities, due to recent technological and systematic changes. Similar communication barriers existed between multiple management layers in the SEC before the 2008 bank bailouts, a problem identified and resolved during Mary Schapiro’s appointment beginning in 2009.

Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For identify companies with premium growth opportunities, resulting in retaining employees with the top talent in their respective industries. Likewise, avoiding talent loss is instrumental in regaining, and then maintaining previously lost or suppressed talent. When the agency is expanding and networking opportunities are abundant, talent selection and retention tends to be reliable and somewhat fair. When growth and networking is stagnate, responsible approaches to alternative means of selection should be considered. A more fair and unbiased approach will serve to retain talented employees. In consideration of limited budgeting, possible approaches include internet panel decisions for management candidate selection, in-depth online interviewing, voluntary management related networking seminars, and electronic cross-office project management.

Although no noticeable changes have taken effect yet, on March 15, 2013 SSA Acting Commissioner Carolyn Colvin had vowed to respond to Viewpoint Survey results within several weeks. The coming months will reflect the results of these promises. Optimistically, when the Obama Administration appoints the next Commissioner, he/she will continue to attempt to fulfill this promise.


Author: Daniel Daugherty is a Claims Representative with the Social Security Administration.

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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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