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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.           Vol. 31, No. 8 * April 26, 1999

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Employees as Free Agents

There was a time, not very long ago, in professional sports such as baseball, when a player would be spotted by a scout, perhaps in high school or college, and developed as an apprentice on a farm team to gain advanced experience and knowledge before breaking into the big leagues.

The athletes were identified with a particular team and most likely spent an entire career wearing the colors and insignia of the team which gave them their start. It’s hard to think of names like Sandy Koufax, Duke Snyder or Don Drysdale, for example, without also immediately thinking of the Dodgers.

Things have changed a lot in only a couple of decades in both professional sports and professional public employment.

Concepts such as the "single employer career," the loyalty to the team or organization and the nurturing of employees by the organization have, in general, eroded. They have been replaced by a mentality on the part of many employees and public, as well as private, organizations designed around the concept of "free agency."

This is, long-term loyalty to an organization is giving way to the career approach marked by shifting from one organization to another when the offers are believed to be better and the work environment believed to be more satisfying.

Persons change career fields and move between organizations. Lifestyle changes and life stage changes combine with more information about other opportunities, such as may be found on Internet sites, and the willingness to be more mobile.

Money is an important motivator, but it is not the only one. People leave jobs because they feel that their opportunities to contribute and to be challenged have declined. People leave because they do not feel appreciated and they do not have the flexibility that they seek to balance work and family.

For the public employer, the result can be increased recruitment and training costs, as well as a loss of stability and continuity.

Just as an employee with a young family just beginning a career will have different fringe benefit concerns than the single person close to retirement, the same is true of different motivations that lead to moves by free agents.

The HR Doctor recommends that public agencies pay careful attention to free agency and take positive steps to improve the "return on investment" which comes with retaining motivated and experienced employees. Here is a specific "prescription" to respond to the challenges of free agency:

  • Offer flexible benefits in a model such as the "cafeteria" approach. This model allows employees to design a fringe benefit package, within basic cost limitations, which best meets the needs of their individual circumstances.
  • Maintain competitive salaries and benefits. All managers are HR professionals, the HR Doctor maintains. That means, in this case, that all managers need to be aware of labor market conditions and how changing conditions affect their own agency.

For example, agencies in the health care business employing registered nurses need to scan the environment and be aware of employment practices in the area. Salary or benefit adjustments will be needed periodically as the market changes. The same is true in the information technology area, as well as many others.

  • Examine core competencies. What are the services which the agency can best provide itself as opposed to using an outside vendor or contractor? The more specialized or esoteric the service may be, the more it may be in the agency’s best interest to explore contracting out or a consortium approach with other agencies.
  • Take the time to recognize and thank employees for their contributions. Several past HR Doctor articles speak of the problems that arise by a failure to use two very powerful words – "thank you" – frequently enough. Take the time to acknowledge and praise contributions and results produced by employee hard work.
  • Permit employees to feel that they have a direct role in shaping the work product. Challenge employees to solve workplace problems themselves, so that they can develop a sense of being a stakeholder in the agency’s success. If this sounds like empowerment, then the reader has passed the HR Doctor’s "hearing test."
  • Create a system that plans for the future. Give employees and potential employees opportunities through internships, relationships with high schools and colleges in the area to provide students (a.k.a. the employees of the future) to see how they might develop their own careers within the public agency.
  • Build an employee development program into the organization. One way to encourage "free agents" to stay is to have personal and professional growth opportunities right in their current organization.

Do these things and the instability of the free agency model will be greatly reduced. Do these things and employee productivity and workplace respect will increase. Fail to respond to free agency trends and the organization will be hurt in the long run. Managers can take steps now in the workplace to create a more stable organization. The choice is yours.

You can contact the HR Doctor at the e-mail address below or by fax at 954/796-9495.

Best Wishes,
The HR Doctor
e-mail at

(If you have questions for the "HR Doctor," e-mail him at Rosenberg is the Human Resources director for Broward County, Fla.)


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