Federal morale deeply impacted by pay freeze, ‘fed bashing’

Federal managers and employees alike are suffering from low morale problems, according to the results of an exclusive Federal News Radio survey. The survey is p...

By Julia Ziegler
Web Manager
Federal News Radio

The morale of federal managers and employees has been damaged significantly by the two-year pay freeze and perceived fed bashing by the public and members of Congress, according to the results of a Federal News Radio survey.

On a scale from 1-10, with one being extremely low and 10 being extremely high, only 12 percent of federal managers rated their morale at an 8 or higher, while 43 percent rated their morale at a 3 or lower. Federal employees felt much the same way. 11 percent rated their morale at an 8-10, while 44 percent indicated their morale at a 1-3.

Interestingly, those surveyed rated their personal level of morale higher than that of their colleagues. When asked to rate the overall morale of the federal workforce, only 2 percent of federal managers and 5 percent of federal employees said that their colleagues have a morale level between 8-10.

1,694 people took Federal News Radio’s unscientific, online survey from Jan. 12 – Jan. 24, 2012. 20 percent of respondents were federal managers and 80 percent were federal employees. (View raw survey results from federal managers and federal employees.)

“Federal employees are struggling,” said Tom Fox, vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. “You enter into government service willing to make a sacrifice. It is a public service. The people we work with are exceptionally mission-driven and are not looking for a lot of praise or a lot of rewards as a result of the work they do. They’re really looking to make a difference. Because of that, all the negativity associated with federal employment and public service right now is particularly disheartening. It’s the type of thing folks are prepared to withstand for a certain period of time but, now that we are moving into two solid years of fed bashing, folks are tired and eager to find ways to keep their heads held up high despite some of those negative perceptions.”

Both federal managers and employees agreed that pay freezes, fed bashing, and ineffective managers are the top three morale killers at their agencies, respectively. Hiring freezes/buyouts, tighter budgets, and cuts to funding for travel and events were less to blame for morale problems, according to those surveyed.

Federal Manager Responses
Average Ranking
(Scale from 1-6)
Pay Freeze 2.02
Fed Bashing 2.54
Ineffective Managers 3.19
Hiring Freeze/Buyouts 3.41
Tighter Budgets 3.42
Cuts to $$ for
Travel, Events, Other
Federal Employee Responses
Average Ranking
(Scale from 1-6)
Pay Freeze 2.20
Fed Bashing 2.58
Ineffective Managers 2.70
Tighter Budgets 3.25
Hiring Freeze/Buyouts 3.49
Cuts to $$ for
Travel, Events, Other

(Respondents were asked to rank, in order, the biggest morale killers at their agencies on a scale from 1 to 6, with 1 being the biggest morale killer.)

“With no pay increase in two years and my health insurance going up, my check is going backwards,” one respondent told Federal News Radio. “It’s the constant worry about what is going to happen, along with less people, more work and no time to do it all.”

Anecdotally, multiple federal managers told Federal News Radio their “inability to fire the incompetent” also causes morale problems at their agencies. Federal employees mentioned cuts to training budgets and alleged cronyism/favoritism when it comes to promotions as two other morale killers.

Are your management techniques effective?

Morale problems aren’t just causing issues in the office, they are also causing employees to leave federal service. 79 percent of managers and 72 percent of employees said they know people who retired or left government due to morale issues in their federal offices.

When asked how well agency managers are motivating employees on a scale from 1 to 10, only 10 percent of employees gave managers a score between 8-10 (the highest ranking), while 56 percent of respondents gave managers a score from 1-3.

As for what motivational techniques managers use that are effective in the workplace, one-third of federal employees answered with “none.”

“Management is really a process of coaching,” said John Baldoni, president of Baldoni Consulting, a coaching and leadership development firm. Baldoni has worked with multiple federal agencies including NASA Goddard, the Air Force, and the Department of Education. “There isn’t a lot of coaching going on in some of the systems that I have observed. Coaching in a sense of, what’s my employee looking for? How can I provide that for him? How can I provide that guidance? How can I challenge him or her appropriately? How can I counsel him? How can I give him constructive criticism? How do I develop him and her? Why? So I help the whole team achieve and I help my department succeed.”

While federal employees said pay and bonus increases are definite morale boosters in their offices, many seem to understand that due to budget constraints and the two-year pay freeze those aren’t viable options for federal managers at this time. Employees surveyed offered time-off awards, team-building events, and simple “thank you’s” as alternatives they believe would help boost morale the most right now.

“Mainly, if they show that they really appreciate us and our work, that would be the greatest motivator – and the least expensive,” wrote one respondent.

Employees and managers alike also agree that keeping the lines of communication open and being honest with employees go a long way towards keeping morale up.

“I try to communicate, in group settings and individually, about the positive aspects of the job, and remind everyone that these times won’t last forever, that things will improve and there will be opportunities,” one federal manager told Federal News Radio. “There are still positive things about working here.”


Managing morale – lessons from OPM’s John Berry (column)

Survey Results – Federal Managers (pdf)

Survey Results – Federal Employees (pdf)

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