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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.         Vol. 32, No. 13 * July 10, 2000

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‘Staying’ Power

An economy with a 96 percent employment rate and a particularly strong demand for those with certain high tech skills is a tough arena in which to conduct public sector recruitment work or to influence the retention of key employees. After all, the traditional thinking about government is that it is an employer who offers stability, long-term employment opportunities and structured work assignments for the majority of its employees.

Salary rates have been set in general to reflect what the labor market for government employment applicants would bear but with a general tendency toward the conservative in setting salary and other forms of benefits such as time off.

A common tool in salary setting, required in some jurisdictions, is the paralleling of salaries to the average of other jurisdictions in a given area or of a certain size. Use of such surveys in which agencies, in effect, feed off of one another, is also a relatively conservative technique.

Overlaid on top of the situation has been the equally “distinguished” tradition of civil service protections that provide, in effect, that a public employee past probation “owns” his or her job as a matter of personal property.

It follows, then, under the Fifth or Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution that this personal property cannot be taken without due process. For a government/business, this means navigating through what can often be a maze of appeal hearings, procedural rights, technical requirements, “Bills of Rights” for some employees such as firefighters or law enforcement officers and more. Court precedent and legislative involvement in local government affairs complicates the situation.

The result is that employees in these settings are extremely well protected. However, the agency is also often protected against innovation, flexible adjustment to changing business conditions, rewarding extraordinary performance and taking effective corrective action when performance or behavior is below standard or lacking in any standard.

There is no constitutional amendment, regrettably, protecting government against being deprived of the ability to move in an effective businesslike manner to install positive changes – nor is there likely to be at any time soon.

Retaining great employees become-much more difficult as other benefits are paraded in front of candidates by dot coms and others able to move faster, offer more financial incentives and more flexibility in personal work situations. One web design company known to the HR Doctor recently loaded its employees into a motor home and drove them from the company headquarters in Michigan to Florida for a one-week visit. This was in celebration of completing a major account project.

Government agencies are simply not able to compete with that kind of opportunity for innovative benefits, any more than we provide access to the organization’s cabin and trout stream in the Sierras as another company did.

The competitive economy, with increased opportunities for the most employable and innovative public employees, is a fact of life that will not soon diminish. Incentives for these great performers to exercise their “staying power” rather than their ability to easily leave for a perceived greener pasture represents great HR and organizational challenges in cities and counties for many years to come.

Unfortunately, being successful in this new recruiting arena demands more innovation in HR and fewer responses such as “but we’ve never done it that way before” and “that would take six layers of approval.”

It will take a change in the basic genetic make-up of organizational attitudes and approaches to problems. One agency tried to create a very basic version of telecommuting for people. However by the time the process became weighed down with restrictions, demands for documentation, photos of the home office area, etc., the flexibility was replaced by the inertia that led to the program’s failure.

On the other hand, one county installed a new compensation model that featured cash bonuses and immediate rewards for great performance in addition to the rather more traditional basic raise on anniversary date approach. This competency based evaluation model established links between pay and performance, which are working well and will serve this county for many years. HR agencies are experimenting with out-stationed employees working in different office areas, which may be closer to their homes, or the concept of performance contracts, which mix a sense of stability with incentives for measurable performance excellence.

In the future, these trends point to an increasing substitution of a one-size-fits- all HR models with a more flexible model that mixes individually tailored work programs with organization-wide assurances of equal opportunity and non-discrimination.

It also points to the use of a new HR professional specialty – the Retention Analyst. The best performing employees are the ones who can most easily leave. Certainly they will be influenced by great offers of financial increase well beyond what the public agency can match. However, those agencies that create very visible programs of recognition, of opportunities for personal training and growth, and of a sense of purpose and honor behind public service are those that will continue to fare well despite the overall competition. Those that also keep a sense of the pulse of the organization and can anticipate problems that might make people leave are the ones that will do very well despite the competition.

Compensation is, of course, a major motivator for people to leave employment for another job or to be attracted to an employer in the first place. However, there are other critical characteristics that make a person choose to leave or to choose to stay regardless of the salary.

One of those is job satisfaction. That is, do employees feel that their work makes a positive difference and that they are recognized for their contribution by an employer who respects them and takes visible steps to support them in their work? It is true that the notion of job satisfaction and ability to make a positive contribution are intrinsic, hard to measure characteristics, but they are important to people and they result in loyalty and also staying power.

The watchword of HR of a prior generation was stability and one rule for everyone. That mantra will increasingly fail in the next generation of HR. Our job as public administrators is to smooth the transition from one model to the next and to avoid being trapped into thinking that something which has never been done in the past can never be done in the future.

Best wishes from the HR Doctor and don’t forget to “visit” at

(Rosenberg is the Human Resources director for Broward County, Fla.)


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