Federal Employee Morale Slumps with Pay Freezes, Budget Cuts

By Bill Leonard Dec 4, 2012
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Budget cuts, salary freezhttps://stg-kafka-edit.shrm.org/ResourcesAndTools/hr-topics/employee-relations/Pages/Federal-Employee-Morale-Engagement.aspx es and criticism of government jobs have had a negative impact on the attitudes and engagement of federal employees, according to a survey conducted by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

The results of the 2012 Federal Viewpoint Survey released Nov. 22, 2012, revealed that the overall job satisfaction level for the federal workforce declined sharply from 2011, falling to its lowest level since OPM launched the annual study in 2002.

“Since the inception of the survey, we had seen a steady upward trend until 2011,” said John Palguta, vice president of policy for the Partnership for Public Service in Washington, D.C. “It is a disappointment,” he told SHRM Online, “but not totally unexpected given the ongoing pay freezes and the political pressure to reduce government spending, which has increased anxiety among federal workers about job security.”

Nevertheless, Palguta and other analysts found several positive results in the OPM data. The survey revealed that federal employees believe their work is important and are willing to put extra effort into their jobs. Expanded telework opportunities within the federal government have had a positive effect. The survey revealed that federal employees who do some type of teleworking tend to have higher job satisfaction and engagement.

Job satisfaction and engagement scores varied widely by agency, however. Employees with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had the highest job satisfaction ratings in the federal government, the survey found. The career tracks, work projects and research opportunities available within the agency apparently helped boost NASA’s satisfaction scores, according to sources familiar with the issue.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) scored the best among cabinet-level departments. Palguta attributes the DOT’s strong showing to Transportation Secretary Raymond LaHood’s emphasis on employee engagement.

“The DOT had some of the strongest numbers in the survey,” Palguta said. “Secretary LaHood has included employee engagement as a job performance measurement for managers and supervisors at the DOT, and it seems to be working.”

Measuring Engagement Is a Significant Undertaking

The 2012 survey data is the most comprehensive look at the attitudes of federal workers ever compiled, according to OPM officials. More than 1.6 million federal employees were invited to participate, and approximately 687,000 workers completed the survey—the highest number of responses ever to an OPM viewpoint survey. Survey responses were collected from April to June 2012.

“It was a truly monumental task to compile the results,” Palguta said. “And OPM did a great job putting the results together.”

OPM officials compared some of the survey data to benchmarks for private-sector employers. Overall, job satisfaction scores for the private sector averaged several points higher than the federal employees’ scores, according to the OPM data.

“Job satisfaction scores for the public sector have always tended to lag behind the trends of the private sector in relation to economic conditions. And that same trend is holding up here,” he said.

When the recession began in 2007, companies were cutting back and private-sector workers were being laid off. There were growing fears and anxiety about job security, and their job satisfaction scores dropped, Palguta explained. Government employees, on the other hand, felt they were needed to provide essential services and keep the economy moving, so their scores tended to be higher than their private-sector counterparts.

“Now the situation is that the economy is improving, and private-sector workers are feeling much better about their job security, so naturally their satisfaction scores have begun to climb,” Palguta said. “Public-sector employees, however, are now feeling the pinch of budget cuts. Plus, the political pressure to reduce government workforces is having a negative effect.”

Palguta said he believes the trend will eventually reverse again and the job satisfaction numbers among federal employees should begin to improve. He added that private-sector employers can learn something by looking at the OPM’s data. “There’s something there for everyone,” he said. “It’s such a large sampling that you can certainly see patterns where efforts to engage employees and improve leadership skills are paying off and where improvements are needed.”

Bill Leonard is senior writer for SHRM.

Related Articles:

SHRM: Job Security Is No Longer Top Driver of Satisfaction, SHRM Online Employee Relations, October 2012

Reports Link Employee Engagement and Customer Experience, SHRM Online Employee Relations, October 2012

Money: It’s Not All Employees Want, SHRM Online Employee Relations, August 2012

Employee Attitudes: Silence Is Not Golden, SHRM Online Employee Relations, April 2011

Untangling Positive and Negative Employee Feedback, SHRM Online Employee Relations, August 2010

Quick Links:

SHRM Online Employee Relations page

SHRM Employee Communications Resource Page

SHRM Connect Employee Relations community

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