This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.
The interesting times we are experiencing have a lot of people wondering if now is a good time to get out of government and do something else. In the past when most federal workers were covered by the Civil Service Retirement System and its “golden handcuffs” that would not be a reasonable thing to ask.
Now, with the Federal Employees Retirement System in place for more than 32 years, most federal employees have a mobile Thrift Savings Plan that they can take with them to a new employer in the private sector. The low unemployment rate is making this more of an applicant’s job market, so that just adds to the temptation to try something different.
So is this the time to leave government? The answer depends on many things. If you are dissatisfied with where you are working, what is the reason? Is the problem with a boss or bosses? Are you tired of federal employees being used as political pawns? Do you not like the administration’s way of running your agency? Is some interesting opportunity outside of the federal government tempting you? Are you just fed up with government rules? Is it something else?
Let’s look at a few of those. If you are looking at an opportunity outside of government, ask a lot of questions before you make a move. The longer you have been in government, the more likely it is that you will have to make a lot of adjustments when you move to the private sector. Some of those adjustments will be for the better, some not so much. If you are early in your career, you may find the adjustment easier.
When you decide to leave government for a private sector job, it is important to get good advice from people you know and trust. Keep in mind that, unlike federal pay, most companies will negotiate your pay. It is not a “take it or leave it” proposition like it generally is in government. That means your negotiating skills could result in tens of thousands of dollars more if you negotiate well, or less if you do not.
Also consider what you will be doing. Some companies have an interesting mix of work and can offer you variety that you might not get in government. Others are very narrowly focused and you might find yourself doing the same work for many years. After years in government and in the private sector, I cannot say one is always better than the other. How you fit will be based on your skills, your personality, the company or agency where you work and many other factors. If you do decide to make the move, do it because you are going to something you want and not because you want to get away from something.
Getting away from something often means a boss. Surveys consistently show that a bad boss is among the top reasons for leaving an employer. “You go to work for an agency/company and leave a boss” is a cliche, because it is true. That means leaving your job because you want to get away from a boss is often a bad move. How do you know that the new boss will be better? Even if the new boss is better, how long will they stay in place? What happens if the next boss is worse than the one you have now? My advice for many years has been to not let a bad boss drive you away.
There may be some rare circumstances where your boss is so extraordinarily bad that getting out makes sense, but more often than not it is a bad move. In my professional life I have made three moves where my boss was a factor. In each case, I waited until I found another opportunity that was a good career move. I always encourage folks who are asking for advice to do the same thing. If you want to make a move because of a bad boss — make a move that will be good for you.
I have heard from some folks that they are unhappy with the current administration’s approach to running their agency. They say their political leadership is at odds with the reasons their agencies exist, and they do not agree with the direction of the agency. While such complaints may have increased with the current administration, they are not unique to this president. Sometimes the complaint is about conflict over the mission of the agency. Sometimes it is conflict over the direction of specific programs.
When the problem is that you do not like what your political leaders are doing, you have several options: You can leave, stay and try to influence their approach, bail out or stay around to do what you can to minimize what you perceive as damage. More often than not, if you believe this or any administration is at odds with the reason your agency exists, bailing out is probably not the right answer. Think about it. You love the agency’s mission, don’t want to see it harmed, so you leave? What does that do to preserve the agency mission? How does it help the people who are not in a position to leave? What message does it send about how much you care about the mission? If you truly believe in the mission of your agency and do not like the direction it is heading, the best option may be to stay there to do what you can to influence where the agency is going.
Whatever your reason for considering leaving government, make a decision based on where you want to be rather than where you are, and only after learning all you can about where you plan to go. When I hear from people who made bad career moves, they usually left for the wrong reason or did not do their due diligence before making a move.
If you do not like where you are, always remember that an ill-informed move could land you somewhere that is worse than where you are now.
Jeff Neal is a senior vice president for ICF and founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.