Friday, August 15, 2008

CPSRENEWAL.CA Weekly: Development Programs and the Culture of Entitlement

When I first started in the public service, one of the first things I noticed was the need for greater performance management. It wasn’t until I read Etienne Laliberté’s An Inconvenient Renewal that I truly understood why:

[Etienne’s] favourite illustration of the challenges of managing performance comes from Tim Brennan of HiringSmart Canada. Brennan explains that any group within an organization is composed of three types of workers who collectively produce 100% of the output of the organization:

1. The superior producers who constitute 16% of the workforce and produce 60% of the total output the organization;
2. The average producers who form 68% of the workforce and account for 60% of the total output;
3. The poor performers who make up 16% of the workforce and who are responsible for a 20% deficit in the total output of the organization.

Despite having two groups of workers who collectively could generate 120% of output, the organization’s productivity is hurt by the poor performers: “Not only do they not directly produce anything of value, they demoralize everyone around them.” (Etienne Laliberté, An Inconvenient Renewal)

There are numerous ways to more actively manage performance within the workplace: establishing performance goals; documenting performance plans; observing and providing feedback; evaluating performance; rewarding good performance; and addressing poor performance. Development programs are becoming an increasingly popular tool because they wrap all of these activities up into a single coherent package. As someone who provides input into development programs, I understand that they address the need to develop and retain talent, to promote a learning environment, and ensure that there are resources available to step up as people leave the organization.

The Link to Entitlement

I think that the importance and availability of development programs is consistently overstated, especially by hiring mangers during the intake process. The hype of development programs is creating a new breed of entitlement in the public service:

The culture of entitlement in the public service is probably one of the behavioural norms newcomers in the organization first notice. Not only is entitlement pervasive and acceptable, it is even encouraged. Therefore it is not surprising to see that although many newcomers are initially turned off by this aspect of the culture, it is probably the one they assimilate the most quickly. (Etienne Laliberté, An Inconvenient Renewal)

The appropriation by new hires of the culture of entitlement is an extremely disheartening reality. I have seen many new hires speak so vehemently about development programs that you would think they consider it their absolute right. Again while this may be the case sometimes (i.e. check your letters of offer my friends) more often then not it is mere window dressing. Moreover, development programs are also too often described by hiring managers as vehicles of promotion. They emphasize the career progression and promotional aspects of the program rather then the opportunities the programs present in terms of professional and skills development. The result is that new hires ignore the training options available to them (say by writing and holding your manager to account via a Personal Learning Plan) and focus on the absence of a formal program.

Can we honestly blame new hires for focusing on exactly what they were told to focus on during the on-boarding process?

Hiring managers are deploying everything they can in order to pique the interests of an increasingly mobile knowledge workforce that is smart enough to take full advantage of supply shortages. Sadly, I know a handful of recent Post Secondary Recruits, all of whom were (falsely) under the impression that they were going to be parachuted into a development program immediately upon entering the public service and that they wouldn’t have to juggle career choices for the next 3-4 years while they were learning the ropes in the development program.

Now they are faced with the absence of the program and the reality that they now need to make choices about their careers, while their experience in the public service makes them fear the possibility of the false promises of others (fool me once…).

[Afterthought by ncharney: What ever happened to rolling up your sleeves and doing it yourself? Why not hype that opportunity in the on-boarding process, maybe it will breed that type of work culture...]


  1. Just read the column and I absolutely disagree.

    I think that the issue with development programs is not as much about entitlement as it is about false promises. If a new recruit is promised a development program and this becomes part of their decision-making process, then, yes they are entitled to it. For example, part of the reason I agreed to take an ES-02 position via the PSR process vs. competing for ES-03 positions from the outside, is BECAUSE I was promised a development program. I never would have felt entitled to anything, had a development program not been heavily advertised and repeatedly used as a selling point during a post-secondary recruitement (PSR) campaign that i was a part of. Also, if having a Master's or PhD degree continues to be a requirement for all PSR candidates, departments will have to augment the ES-02 pay scale/ responsibility level with SOMETHING, and a development program seems to be a fair choice. How else will they attract such people to the government? If I lived ANYWHERE outside of Ottawa, and had the academic success/ work experience that I do, I would not take a job which offers 46 000 as a starting salary and which puts me in a job description that basically makes me sound like a trained money.

    Also, I don't understand why "rolling your sleeves up and working" and development programs are presented as two opposing and mutually exclusive ideas. Although I thought I would be in a development program, I was 100% ready and excited to work hard and learn a LOT and I never expected this be an easy way to cruise to the top. There is nothing stopping departments from making development programs as challenging as they want. Several departments, such as NRCan for example, run very successful and challenging development programs. It is false to suggest that people in these programs stop trying and cruise through from an ES-02 to an ES-05 without actually doing or learning much, or that they would somehow be better off having to find these learning and advancement opportunities on their own. Being in a development program does not make you a free-rider.

    I won't even go into the fact that outside of the PSR, you don't actually need an MA or PhD to be an ES, especially at the 2, 3 and 4 levels, and how unfair this discrepancy is.

    So, until the government can fix those disrepancies, offer competitive pay and actually reward people who have their MA's and PhD's with jobs that require that level of skill and competency, they damn better be prepared to offer development programs, ESPECIALLY if they are using these programs to lure people in. It's false advertisement, and since retention is such a big part of renewal, departments should make sure that what they promise during recruitement campaigns is what they actually deliver.

  2. I have to chime in on this one as well.....and I will first admit that I am not a current Public Servant, however I recently had a good conversation with the folks who manage the School of Public Service and one of their biggest laments was the fact that they are spending major time, effort and money on puttingtogether training and development programs.....and they are not getting the attendance numbers to sustant some of the programs!

    It's a bit of the chicken and the egg...People say I don't have enough programs and tools open to me and when they are created they can seem to use them.

    To be fair I also realize that the majority of these courses or programs requires manager approval and funding....(which is altogether different issue!)

    But I do agree with Nicholas that many of my good friends who are in the Public Service don't take their development in hand enough. Sadly if you don't push hard for it and keep you manager honest and make it clear that this is crucial for you to stick around...then it probably won't happen no matter the amount of ressources available.

    My two Cents!

  3. I think the views expressed by Nick and Mike in the column and entirely compatible with MC’s comment.

    Personally, having been part of a development program, I have observed as well the sense of entitlement Nick describes. In fact, I clearly remember a discussion I once had with members of the Management Trainee Association (which I was part of – see where one person stated flat out that the “personal funding allowance” management trainees were given each year to cover some training expenses was her right. I had to correct the person on the spot immediately and explain that the allowance was not a right, in fact it wasn’t even a privilege.

    An article which was posted on my departmental intranet explains that “there is a difference in law between a right and a privilege. The courts have defined a privilege as "a permission, an allowance, which is intended or perceived to be beneficial to the recipient and which is in fact enjoyed but which is not to be called for by the recipient as of right". As contrasted with a right, a privilege has been described as "the absence of a right, that is something which may be enjoyed but for which one has no enforceable claim against another". In the context of labour law, a privilege has been characterized as including all those benefits that an employee is accustomed to receiving but to which the employee is not legally entitled. Privileges may be expressly granted or they can arise from established custom, policy or practice. A privilege may arise, for example, from an established and well-entrenched course of conduct, which gives rise to the reasonable expectation that a benefit, previously granted, will be continued.”

    Based on this, it is clear to me that much of what development programs offer is closer to a “perk” than a right or even a “privilege”.

    In defense of Nick, he didn’t say that all development program participants felt entitled. He said: “I have seen many new hires speak so vehemently about development programs that you would think they consider it their absolute right.” While not all participants in development programs speak this kind of misguided language of “rights”, I too have observed that it is still pretty widespread. It is actually part of the reason I eventually left the Management Trainee Association ( I just couldn’t stand the sense of entitlement of some of my colleagues.

    One key point MC makes is the issue of promises made during recruitment campaigns and what is actually delivered. MC hits it right on the nail. I would only remark that the problem is not false promises per say as much as the overselling of the public service and the creation of false expectations that are never actually met. There’s a nuance. I have seen very few cases of people in development programs who were actually “promised” anything. What typically happens though is that the recruiters or managers present a one-sided view of the development program and the prospect of a career in the public service – the idealistic view!

    The other side of the coin is rarely discussed. Although recruiters and managers are largely responsible for creating these high expectations that are rarely met, part of the burden also falls on the shoulders of the recruits who don’t know how to interview an organization and don’t ask the right questions to the managers and the recruiters. In fact, the recruits “wants to believe” that the organization he or she will join is great and it will be the beginning of a super-fantastic career; they’d rather not know too much about the dark side of the organization, its culture and the reality of being in a development program… at least not now. Welcome to La-La-Land!!!

    It is true though that if, as a recruit, you ask questions that put the fingers on the problems of the organization, you are not likely to get the job. So who really wants to ask the question anyway? Most recruits would rather shut up and get a foot in the door rather than face the fact that they are probably simply delaying their own disappointment.

    I remember being interviewed by CCRA back in 2003. CCRA had 12 positions to offer, and for each position the were going to identify the top 3 candidates. During my interview I ask the board members what it was like for new MTP participants to integrate themselves in the teams when they were hired (I had heard that the experience was rarely a smooth one). The leader of the board responded by asking me what I would do to integrate myself in the team (he thought he was really smart and wouldn’t have to answer the question). So I explained what I would do, but then I came back again with a question: “What do YOU do as an organization to facilitate the integration of your new hires?”. It must have been one of the most uncomfortable moment in the career of these board members. They were moving on their chairs, looking at each others, sweating, wondering if it was even okay to give me a truthful answer… The leader of the board, in all his wisdom, deflected the answer to another board member: “You’ve been hired not too long ago, what was it like?” The poor lady was so nervous she was stuttering with fear as she tried to come up with an answer that wouldn’t paint a too bleak picture of her organization.

    Needless to say that right there, I knew I didn’t want to join this organization. And preferred to pass on the opportunity to get a foot in the door rather than set myself up for failure by joining this organization. In any case, I didn’t even have to make a decision. Of the 48 people who were interviewed, I didn’t even make the top 36! Looking back at it, not only was it a good thing, it was kind of flattering.

    MC’s closing comment is the real key here: “since retention is such a big part of renewal, departments should make sure that what they promise during recruitment campaigns is what they actually deliver.” I’m currently working on a posting for my blog and this is precisely the idea I’ll try to express.

    Etienne Laliberté