FEDERAL EMPLOYEES: Why They Are Here and Why They Are Staying

By Ford, John M. | Career Planning and Adult Development Journal, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

FEDERAL EMPLOYEES: Why They Are Here and Why They Are Staying


Ford, John M., Career Planning and Adult Development Journal


It is risky, perhaps presumptuous, for someone who is not a career counselor to speculate about the rewards and challenges of that job. But I can guess that one of the greater rewards is to be approached by an eager job-seeker who can be helped toward a career that matches both talents and interests. Career counselors work hard-and smart-to be prepared for such moments. This article aspires to contribute to that work, to share research results that may help career counselors advise those who mightor possibly might not-find satisfaction in a career with the federal government. Specifically, this article presents findings from a recent government-wide survey that tell us what federal employees enjoy about federal employment. This will provide potential job applicants, through those that advise diem, with an accurate perception of the opportunities and limitations of Federal employment.

Researchers at the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB, www.mspb.gov) study the ongoing health of the federal employment system and the well-being of its employees. Their mission is to ensure that federal employees are hired and managed according to specific merit principles and that federal agency policies and practices are free from prohibited personnel practices such as discrimination and other forms of unfairness. This goal leads MSPB to gather information about what Federal employees like and dislike, about what motivates them and why they might consider leaving federal employment.

Recently MSBP (2007a) published the results of its government-wide Merit Principles Survey 2005 (MPS 2005), a web-based survey that collected perceptions about federal employment from 36,926 participants working in 24 federal agencies. This article uses data from the MPS 2007, and other related MSPB research, to characterize the typical federal employee in terms of basic work-related motivations, what attracts them to federal service, what they like about their particular government agency, and what they may not like about their employment. The article concludes with why some federal employees contemplate working elsewhere and what those planning to stay will do to improve their job performance.

Basic motivations. The MPS 2005 included several questions that asked participants how motivating they find different aspects of their job. The primary purpose was to interpret responses in the light of other questions about pay and job performance, but they serve career counselors and job seekers as a window into the motives of the typical federal employee. Survey participants indicated the relative importance of 12 different factors in motivating them to do a good job. The results (summarized in Figure 1) show that supervisors and non-supervisors are similarly motivated.

Both groups are more highly motivated to do a good job by emotional outcomes as opposed to the more concrete cash or non-monetary awards. Specifically, a greater number are motivated by such factors as pride in their work (98 per cent) and their duty as a public employee (90 per cent) than by direct rewards such as a hypothetical cash award of $1,000 (71 per cent) or increased chances of promotion (71 per cent).

These findings reveal a federal work force that is largely motivated by personal factors. These findings also mean that it may be more difficult to externally motivate federal employees because they are largely driven by internal motivations. Consistent with this finding, federal agencies often do not rely solely on money to improve individual or organizational performance. They are more concerned with internal employee attitudes, such as employee engagement and satisfaction. That does not mean that issues of pay and monetary awards should be ignored. Over 70 per cent of participants still indicate that increased chances for promotion (which could be seen as increased pay) and awards of over $1,000 are important motivators. The implications for career counseling may be that individuals with high achievement motivation, with a need to be recognized for relative achievements with respect to their coworkers by financial rewards, are not similar to current federal employees, and may be less satisfied with federal employment. …

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