I was thinking today about an article I saw in August on Federal News Radio. It was called "How long does it take to crush a federal employee?"
The article was written by Jeff Neal, who also runs ChiefHRO.com.
He makes some really good points in the article, written well before the shutdown, including:
"The fed-bashing has risen to unprecedented levels in recent years. Let's take an inventory. It has been 43 months (January 2010) since federal employees have received a general pay raise. Just this week the House voted to allow senior executives to be suspended without pay when accused of wrongdoing. Not found guilty of wrongdoing — just accused. They voted to allow anyone to record any conversation with a federal employee without the employee's consent. It isn't just one party either. A bipartisan majority voted to pass the "Stop Playing on Citizen's Cash Act" to restrict conference spending. Other bills are pending to cripple federal unions, deny feds' bonuses for outstanding performance, cut federal retirement benefits and more.
While that kind of rhetoric may be useful in politics, it is destructive for governance and the people who make up our government. These are not nameless, faceless bureaucrats. They are people. They have names. They have faces. They have families, feelings, hopes and dreams. They also have vital skills the government needs to operate effectively. More important for the government as an employer — they have choices and are free to leave. How long will it take before we crush the federal workforce? What happens if we do?
The damage has started already. Federal retirements are up and continuing to rise. Employee responses to the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey are showing increasing unhappiness. Virtually every question related to morale and engagement showed a decline from 2011 to 2012. Every chief human capital officer I've spoken with believes the numbers will be lower — much lower — in the next round of the survey."
I would bet he is right, especially with the shutdown.
He goes on to say:
"When I was HR director for the Defense Logistics Agency, we did extensive in-depth analysis of our employee survey data. One finding that stuck with me was how long it took new hires in a bad environment to become disillusioned with their jobs. One field office that had particularly bad ratings had great feedback from employees for the first two years. After that, the ratings dropped like a rock. Based on that admittedly limited data point, it appears it takes two years to crush an employee. After that, the damage becomes more difficult to repair. As the attitudes become more ingrained, they are harder to change. We cannot simply start giving pay raises again and stop bashing the workforce and expect everything to be right with the world again.
Study after study shows the corrosive effects of poor morale in the workplace. Productivity goes down, leave use goes up, discretionary effort goes down, and attention to detail is often non-existent. In her book "Good Company," author Laurie Bassi says, "The trademark of a worthy employer is the ability to masterfully manage the tension between employees as costs and employees as assets." I think that is a great standard — one that the federal government is failing to meet. The political battles today completely disregard the employees as assets and go beyond treating them as costs to the point where they are pawns in a political chess game. If we truly want to have a government that functions efficiently and effectively, it is time for the fed bashing to stop. Have the debates regarding the power and reach of government, but stop treating the federal workforce as though they are the problem. They are not, and they can only take so much before their spirit, dedication and willingness to serve are crushed beyond repair."
I am beginning to wonder whether we are there, or rapidly getting there, to that point where we are crushed beyond repair.
I feel it. My colleagues feel it.
None of us want to back to work, and the feeling is the same whether we are getting paid or not. Because you can only take so much of being told you are the problem before you say screw it and walk away. A lot of us are near that point. We are demoralized.
My wife and I were talking about that today at lunch. We both did well in school and came away thinking the world was our oyster. We could do anything we wanted. And we both ended up serving the country because we believed there was no higher calling. Our friends and families took higher paying jobs in the private sector and laughed at those who went the government service route. But we thought we were doing what was best for the country.
Now we are among the "excepted" employees (for a good explanation of exempt, excepted and furloughed employees situations, check out Jeff Neal's post Shutdown: It Could Get Worse Before It Gets Better.) We are getting paid, for the moment, but we know that will run out soon.
And it isn't just the money. Truthfully, my wife and I are squirrels. We have money in savings to last us some months before we would start being unable to pay our bills. It is just the constant battering from Congress and the public. We are excepted because our work can't stop during a shutdown for national security reasons. And during that time, we have to work, without pay, without being able to work for other companies, without being able to borrow from our retirement accounts. We are important enough to be prohibited from striking, but not important enough to be appreciated or paid for our efforts.
I kind of think that if this goes on further, we should strike. Yes, President Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers, but I don't think they could fire all of us.
Maybe if we actually stopped working, instead of continuing this farce that allows the people who genuinely believe they don't need government to continue in that belief, they would stop playing around with people's lives. If we actually stopped working, they would see what a real government shutdown felt like and how much the government does for each and every citizen. OMG, what do you mean we can't fly because there are no TSA folks to screen us or air traffic controllers to keep the skies safe? What do you mean people are flooding across our borders because there is no one guarding them? What do you mean FEMA can't help us with this storm damage. What do you mean I can't get my social security check, my food stamps, my tax refund, etc. Etc. Etc. Yes, you paid for those services, but no one is paying those bills now. You may have paid your cable bill, but if the cable company doesn't pay its employees to come in and run things, you aren't going to still get to watch Showtime.
Maybe people would realize that if we actually stopped working.
But of course we can't do that. Because we are took important to be allowed to.