The Public Service Renewal focus has been (and perhaps still is) largely on recruitment. While this focus has led new recruits to the water, it has not necessarily made them drink. I have had numerous conversations with young public servants. A recurring topic of discussion is: “I am not sure the Public Service is where I want to spend the rest of my career.” Inconsistency between the message of the recruitment effort and subsequent experience delivered to new hires is often cited as one of the contributing factors. In short, outcomes have not aligned with expectations. If we are to retain our talent then we must develop retention strategies aimed at both new recruits and more experienced workers.
It is imperative to keep new recruits interested, challenged, and engaged while providing opportunities to remain mobile both vertically and horizontally. In practical terms, this could mean introducing structured interdepartmental development opportunities, lateral job swapping, job shadowing, private sector internships, or informal employee exchanges. Providing new recruits with mobility within the Public Service could bolster their experience base, keep them fresh, and maintain their interest while keeping them within the functional community. The opportunity for mobility within the Public Service is one of its key attractors to new hires that is often lost when we talk about having new hires commit to working the rest of their lives for the amorphous Government of Canada. Perhaps the cruel irony is that too much mobility in Senior Management has been repeatedly identified as a problem – most recently by the Public Policy Forum.
Given the anticipated breadth of opportunities available to future hires, Public Service employers looking to recruit, retain and develop their own staff, could provide new hires with a handful of road maps indicating likely career paths. The guide would be a valuable resource for new hires eager to plan ahead or understand advancement opportunities within their department. This could easily be incorporated into already existing orientation processes. Subsequently, managers and new hires could use these documents to streamline the development of performance learning agreements for new hires in a timely manner. Incorporating this into the on-boarding process would communicate a commitment to career development on behalf of the organization and its management to its new hires. They also provide a common understanding of how performance will be managed and evaluated.
Functional communities could work together and reinforce the importance and opportunity their work offers by supplying testimonies by dynamic people who have chosen to make careers of public service. Driving home the message of each functional community could encourage new recruits to narrow their options and filter out career opportunities that lie outside those communities, or more importantly outside the Public Service. One of the underlying principles of Public Service retention strategies should be that rational drivers of employment choices (e.g. salary, benefits, location, etc) are not as important as they used to be. Furthermore, emotional drivers (e.g. feeling valued, finding meaning in one’s work, excitement level, etc) must be appealed to in order to retain talent.
New hires are potentially our best and worst source of advertising. While it is perhaps cliché that someone who has a negative experience is likely to tell ten people and that that same person, having a positive experience, is likely only to tell one person, it is nonetheless a fairly accurate depiction of how important first impressions are – especially in an information age where new hires are more connected then ever before.
More Experienced Workers
Engaging our more experienced workers is therefore critical since it will be they who, through their leadership and actions, will drive the opinions and experiences of new hires. Retention efforts aimed at more experienced workers should give them the skills they need to lead new hires through the transition, facilitate knowledge and corporate memory transfer, while keeping them interested in their substantive work. In practical terms this could mean investing in training programs to bolster key competencies that are typically improved through traditional training methods (e.g. evaluating and improving services, facilitating group discussions, planning and organizing, thinking strategically). Additional training should be coupled with proportionately reduced workloads in order to avoid overburdening experienced workers. Overextending more experienced workers could be met with consequences that range beyond employee burnout or elective early retirement. Overextended employees have less time to implement received training and are more likely to default to past practices when time is continually a scarce resource. Moreover, visibly overextended workers could send new hires the wrong message about how the organization feels about work-life balance. Experienced workers must be given the time and space they require to put training into action.
Experienced workers could work with management coaches to help them develop their capacity to influence and engage others and model appropriate behaviour. Accessibility to experienced workers is important to new hires. They see the experience and skills of experienced workers and want to tap into it but often lack the means, opportunity, or understanding of how to do so. Interpersonal skills (i.e. soft skills) and accessibility allow more experienced workers to connect with new hires. They should be able to pique the emotional drivers of new hires and convince them to make the regulatory community their home. Experienced workers set the tone, inform first impressions, and offer the guidance upon which new hires make their career decisions. An observable lack of interest on the part of experienced workers sends a strong negative signal to new employees. More must be done to inform experienced workers that their work is of the highest value and with considerable meaning; their importance is often overlooked in discussions of renewal. In practical terms, this could mean offering more experienced workers new opportunities (job swapping, mentoring opportunities, etc), inviting them to deliver testimonies to new hires, and holding intergenerational forums that explain why their continued leadership is critically important and other engagement activities.
Retention efforts should facilitate an employee’s shift from new hire to experienced worker. It should help manage expectations, workloads, and activities. Any comprehensive retention strategy would require high levels of cooperation within the Public Service, understanding of the need to provide mobility within it and considerable engagement in managing the careers of both new hires and more experienced workers. Finally, it is essential that retention efforts communicate that it is to everyone’s benefit to do invigorating work, in a lively workplace, with competent employees and managers, regardless of age or tenure.
What we need to do, is pay some serious attention to retention.