Federal government as an employer — Is the glass half full or half empty?

While the federal government is probably not a model employer, for a lot of reasons, it is a very good employer.

Commentary by Jeff Neal
Founder of ChiefHRO.com
& Senior Vice President, ICF International

This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.

Now that OPM is sending out the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, it is a good time to talk about the government as an employer. The U.S. government has its share of critics — both inside and out. We also talk about how federal employees have been treated in recent years, with pay freezes, fed- bashing, complaints about bonuses, and the never-ending debate over federal pay. Add a dose of furloughs and shutdowns, and it is easy to conclude the glass is half empty. Being a federal employee stinks. Anyone with any sense would bail as soon as they can. But, is that really true? Is Uncle Sam a lousy employer?

I think the answer is fairly clear. While it is probably not a model employer, for a lot of reasons the U.S. government is a very good employer. Here are a few reasons why I believe that is true:

  • Job security. Although government has been downsizing a bit in the last couple of years, there have been no widespread reductions in force. Even though the furloughs last year were disruptive and certainly not indicative of a model employer, the government did make good on its obligations to the people who were furloughed through no fault of their own and provided back pay. Overall, the likelihood of being laid off (or even fired for poor performance) is not very great. Federal employees generally do not go to bed at night wondering if their job will be there tomorrow, or if their employer will suffer as the result of an economic downturn. The U,S. government is still one of the most stable institutions on the planet.
  • Mission. Being a federal employee means you get to support our troops, forecast the weather, protect intellectual property rights, ensure Social Security benefits get to the people who earned them, protect our borders, protect the environment, preserve vast stretches of public land, operate and preserve our National Parks and Monuments, promote and ensure our economic well-being, conduct diplomacy, ensure the safety of nuclear materials, explore space and our oceans, strengthen our communities, promote education, ensure food safety, strengthen our agricultural community, collect the revenue needed to sustain the government, and countless other vital missions. Virtually every agency of the federal government has a mission its employees can be proud to support.
  • Equal employment opportunity. The government has been a leader for many years in promoting and providing equal employment opportunity. It is not perfect — the number of minority employees in higher graded jobs is still below their representation in the workforce and in our society in general — but the government has made great strides in providing equal opportunity regardless of age, race, ethnicity, gender, religion disability, genetic makeup or sexual orientation. Time and time again, the government has taken the lead in protecting its workforce from decisions that are not based on merit.
  • Pay equity. A recent report from the Office of Personnel Management showed the government has made tremendous progress in pay equity between men and women. At the highest level of career employment, pay disparities between men and women in the Senior Executive Service are less than 1 percent.
  • Base Pay. There are so many arguments about whether federal employees are overpaid, underpaid or paid just right that it may surprise some folks that I include it as a benefit. The reason is that the federal government does not have many low-wage jobs. We can debate whether a GS-5 should make $34K or $30K or $40K, but the bottom line is federal pay is not bad. Unlike some employers, Uncle Sam does not have large numbers of employees working at or below the poverty level.
  • Colleagues. The stereotype of the do-nothing federal employee is not even close to the reality in the agencies where I have worked. The quality of the workforce is high, and there are countless federal employees who any employer would love to have on their team.
  • Right to representation. Federal employees who want to join a union, organize and bargain collectively can do so. Employees who file EEO complaints, administrative grievances and appeals have a right to representation by a representative of their choosing.
  • A pension. The federal government offers not only the Thrift Savings Plan (similar to private sector 401(k) accounts), it also offers a defined benefit pension plan.
  • Time off. Federal employees get 10 paid holidays, 13 days of sick leave and from 13 to 26 vacation days per year.
  • Insurance. The federal government offers life and long-term care insurance, flexible spending accounts and many options for health insurance. The Federal Employee Health Benefits Program is considered to be a model of cost and efficiency.

I spent 33 years as a federal employee. Like many, for me there were good days, great days and no-so-hot days. It is easy in the day-to-day world of work to focus on the negatives and stresses of work and the workplace. When we step back and take a look at the government as an employer, I believe it is safe to say the U.S. government is a very good employer that treats its workforce well, generally offers good pay and offers very competitive benefits. There is something to be said for that.


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Copyright 2014 by Jeff Neal. All rights reserved.

Jeff Neal is founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com, and a senior vice president for ICF International, where he leads the Organizational Research, Learning and Performance practice. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.

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