Friday, July 4, 2008

CPSRENEWAL.CA Weekly: In Conversation with New Public Servants

I had lunch recently with 3 young public servants, all of whom were relatively new to government. I have known the first for just over a month, the second for about two weeks, and the third I met on the spot. Needless to say, I didn’t know them too well, but was amazed at how open the communication was between us despite our relative unfamiliarity. Our conversation flowed freely and almost immediately gravitated to our common experience of work cultures, work loads, recruitment, competitive processes, and of course, management.

Communication Breakdown

Each individual conversation consistently gravitated to a single problem: the inability to raise their concerns with their manager, or worse, the perceived inaction of a manager upon hearing those concerns. Having had similar experiences in the past I offered what advice I could, but what is interesting is not the advice I gave, but what they had said:

“I feel like I got cheated. There was so much emphasis during the recruitment process on wanting the best and brightest, independent and analytical thinkers, to fill challenging positions and make a difference and now … well now I sit around, being underutilized. How do I bring that up to my manager?”

“When I raise my concerns, I’m told to appreciate what I have or how much better off I am than [my manager] was when she started. That is completely beside the point? I want to be challenged, how do I ask for more work? What if she refuses to give me any?”

“Who is doing the actual work around here? I never included and when I am, I’m at a complete loss because I was kept in the dark for so long. Everyone else seems to have enough work to do. I want to make a contribution but I can’t when I am systematically excluded. How do you tell your manager that you want more work, when your manager’s judgment of your group and level determines your workload as opposed to your ability or competencies?”

(Comments above are reproduced with permission.)

I think it is important to note the sharp contrast between the ease of communication between what amounts to a group of relative strangers compared to the difficulty of communication between employees and their managers. Could a new hire really look at their manager and say, “If things don’t improve over the next year I am gone” and expect their situation to get better?

[Aside: I could not help but recall chapter two of Etienne Laliberté’s paper an Inconvenient Renewal in which he discusses the critical link between management and employees’ decision to stay in or leave an organization. I would suggest reading it (again) at this point.]

Difficult Conversations

Generally speaking, I think there is an implicit level of trust among new workers that has yet to be developed between managers and new workers. It is not at all surprising given generational differences and power dynamics between new hires and managers. In some cases new employees, especially contract or term employees seeking permanency, avoid the risk of alienating their managers at all costs because they fear the repercussions of the power dynamic: (further) reduced workloads, withholding references, poor references, expired contracts, negative feedback spread by word of mouth, to name a few.

The result is that new hires lack the sure footing (i.e. experience) required to approach their managers to resolve issues around workloads, processes, greater involvement and career advice. This isn’t the case across the board so there is no need to hit the panic button, however, in my experience it is widespread enough to be of some concern (just ask the three people I spoke with).

Since new hires are unsure about how to approach the situation, managers having considerably more experience, should step up and fill the gap. Managers should take the lead, set the tone early, have conversations (like the one I had), provide feedback and ask for input. This is not an easy task. However, managers that are actively (and effectively) managing files, people and careers are the same ones that are attracting all the top talent (precisely for those reasons).

Every new hire is looking for that manager. Every new hire will continue to hum and haw and shuffle around the public service until they find one. David Eaves' latest blog post speaks directly to this when he says:

“[W]here you work in the public service (and often who you work for) is far more important than what file you work on.”

I wanted to end this column with another interesting point of consensus from around the table at my discussion with my colleagues. It is one that needs no elaboration, no explanation, and the implications of which should ring loudly in everyone’s ears:

“I’m willing to stick it out for a year then I’m gone.”


  1. Great article, keep up the good work! As a young public servant who has had multiple managers to this point - and has moved through the range of exceptional to ineffective managers, I certainly couldn't agree more.

  2. AnonymousJuly 07, 2008

    Again, another very good article and one, I am sorry to say, that resonates with what I have heard recently from some new recruits. I learned of a young recruit (through a family connection) who was very disappointed with her position and was thinking of quitting the public service (after 4 months). So I sought her out (as I feel it is my responsiblity to take the initiative), to offer some mentoring over a coffee. She was happy to meet with me and we discussed issues very similar to what you describe. I was surprised to hear that she felt she was being taught to just deliver whatever was requested without being asked for her input or ideas....and offered work that wasn't very challenging. She said that she was given the "royal" treatment during the recruitment phase, flown to Ottawa, offered great hope for promotion and she got the impression that she was going to be involved in policy discussions,etc. That didn't happen when she arrived but she said that she has a good manager, easy to talk to. So while I am disappointed that she (and others)are going through this situation, I think the solution requires the initiative of both the employee and the manager. While I hear alot of "blogging" from people who want change, I don't see many of them taking the initiative to develop the leadership competencies they need to have the much needed crucial conversations and to make the changes you want to see.