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National Association of Counties • Washington, D.C.      Vol. 34, No. 8 • April 22 , 2002

The H.R. Doctor Is In

Every Manager a Retention Manager

So, you think it’s hard to recruit registered nurses, police officers, computer technicians, engineers, and many others? Just wait — it’s going to get a lot harder! Those are ominous words for every elected and appointed official to hear since the success of all government operations depends on the skills and dedication of the agency employees.

Our administrative lives are getting more complicated every day. Here are some of the major reasons — in case you didn’t already know.

Just ask any physician, but also ask any 14-year- old! The population of our counties and cities seems to both grow endlessly and change demographically. The population is older and more diverse. Such a population requires more services from its local government, including more expensive services, such as health care and public safety.

Work Habits
In the HR Doctor’s opinion, based on 30 years of experience, there is, on the whole, a palpable difference in work habits and commitment of young folks emerging from colleges ready to begin their careers. There will likely be less loyalty to one employer or one profession in the years ahead. There will be a more technologically enabled nomad group whose loyalty may be more to a one-time project than to a long-time career commitment.

These are themes about which the HR Doctor has spoken (and written) about before. See Employees as Free Agents at

There is still another contributing factor. It is slow to emerge and insidious in its impact: that is, the tendency of many running for office to debase government service by attacking institutions and employees.
Many candidates, including those who have run for president over the past generation, have included in their campaigns a litany of attacks on the bloated bureaucracy, the waste and ethics problems of government, the failures of policy, and on and on.

In the very same manner that television news seems to emphasize destruction over institution-building to improve ratings, this generation’s style of public service bashing has an effect. It makes government service appear less attractive to the best and the brightest; meanwhile, consciously or not, it steers them away from a career serving the public. This is sad and wrong for the country.

Possible solutions
These trends are not short term. Conventional approaches alone will not prove effective in the long run in addressing these non-traditional challenges. What will work?

The first step in reading a topographic map in the wilderness to find your way out, much like assessing an agency’s HR needs, is to determine where you are now. Review the demographics of the organization. Is there a significant group nearing retirement? Will already-difficult recruitment problems be compounded? Create a long-range program to address the needs.

Include employee surveys and exit interviews to locate clues about what makes the organization a great place to work and what makes people head for the nearest exit. Pay careful and committed attention to the results, even if the criticism may not be pleasant.

Train managers and supervisors in retention and recruitment skills. Convert every employee into a city or county recruitment machine! Well-prepared and attractive job announcements should be placed in every fire truck, police car, reception area, library, and other prominent locations. The positive behavior of a single manager or police officer in the field can have a profoundly positive effect on morale and the success of the recruitment effort.

Use innovative advertisement techniques including e-recruitment (see the HR Doctor article e-HR at the Web site below). Review the processes used in HR to confirm they make applying for a job as pleasant and efficient as possible. Remember that we need qualified applicants more than they need us. Don’t torture the applicants and make them crawl over broken glass to apply for a job.

This brings the discussion around to the need — the imperative — to review time-honored, venerable, and out-of-date civil service rules and regulations (the phrase itself can be scary) and modernize them. Make them flexible and nimble without sacrificing concepts such as merit and openness in favor of a return to past failures. These include favoritism and decision-making based on irrelevant or unlawful considerations such as race or religion.

Then there is HR itself! Is it trapped in a cramped, inefficient, ugly office? Is the staff so small and overburdened with transaction processing that it cannot function in a strategic way? Is everyone on the staff using a microscope instead of a telescope? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, the elected and appointed heads of the county or city need to act to change the situation.

HR is a metaphor for the entire organization. The image the department presents needs to be modern, efficient, attractive and respectful. It’s hard to do that if the staff has to apply 19th century rules in a 19th Century office setting!

Finally, look inside your own community for keys to improved recruitment and retention. Use internships and summer and after-school work programs for high school and college students as ways to introduce the next generation to the honor of a public service career. Visit classrooms and help teachers demonstrate the challenge and satisfaction of local government service.

Overall, the challenges facing local government in recruitment and retention are great and growing. Use the challenges as opportunities to re-think rules, practices and folklore. Use the challenges to spark long-term improvement in the technology of HR work and in its place in the organization.

That place needs to be at the right hand (or left hand, for 10 percent of the population) of the county manager and elected officials. The first step in recruitment/retention success is to recruit yourself to the belief that there are serious issues ahead and being in a persistent vegetative state won’t help!

All the best,
Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •