The federal workforce skews older than average. Is that bad?

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Discussion about the federal workforce rarely go three minutes, before someone laments the need to get young people into government. Yet three quarters of the federal workforce is over 40, a much higher percentage than in the private sector. So it may be no surprise that age discrimination complaints in government are more common than in the...

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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

Discussion about the federal workforce rarely go three minutes, before someone laments the need to get young people into government. Yet three quarters of the federal workforce is over 40, a much higher percentage than in the private sector. So it may be no surprise that age discrimination complaints in government are more common than in the private sector. American University professor Bob Tobias has been studying the federal workforce for decades and spoke to the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Bob, the perfect topic for two old farts like us to be talking about still working well into their at least in my case, well into the 60s. I don’t know about you. But age discrimination is something that gets overlooked, I think in all of the other competing victimhood stories these days?

Bob Tobias: Well, yes. And as you suggest, Tom, it is interesting that 74% of the workforce, federal workforce is 40 or older, versus 54% in the private sector. So federal employees work longer, and also continue to receive pay increases to up to 65, when the when the average pay is $91,940. So federal employees stay longer, and they get paid pretty well. But at the same time, they’re filing more age discrimination complaints.

Tom Temin: Right. So the reason is not because of termination, or failing to get raises then, because of age, it’s some other effect they’re feeling because of their age.

Bob Tobias: Yes, I think that’s right. And what’s interesting is that if you’re a federal manager, only 1% of the complaints filed result in age discrimination findings. But if you’re a federal person over 40, that means that 99% of the complaints that are filed are dismissed. Now, if you’re a federal manager, you’d say, all right, no discrimination found, get back to work. But that fails to address the basis for the charge itself. And it seems to me that that has to be addressed. Or more and more complaints get filed.

Tom Temin: Well, what would be things that people would perceive being done to them because of their age, if you’re not let go, and you’re not denied any further raises under the schedule system for example, then what can managers do? Or what do they do? Are we aware of that could be perceived as age discrimination by the person feeling that perception.

Bob Tobias: Evaluations, promotions, retaliation are the primary complaints that are filed, but also the EEO complaint process is misused. And people file general complaints that don’t rise to the level of discrimination, but are problems in the workplace that have to be addressed.

Tom Temin: So for example, a manager could just give someone a easier assignment that’s less demanding or less intellectually acceptable to them simply on the assumption they can’t handle the tough stuff anymore.

Bob Tobias: That could be a case, that certainly could be a case. And it seems to me that this idea of solving employee complaints ought be something that supervisors are invested in. And if you look at the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, what you see is that those agencies who score highest, have fewer complaints, and more settlements than those who score lower. And so it makes sense, right? If I am a federal manager, who creates an environment where trust exists, where collaboration exists, where learning exists, where success exists, there are going to be fewer complaints. And if one is filed, it gets settled. The real question is, why aren’t those agencies who are, who have traditionally not scored high, providing the kind of leadership development that’s necessary to create an environment where EEO complaints are filed, they’re settled, and more importantly, increased productivity occurs.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Bob Tobias. He’s a professor in the Key Executive Leadership Program at American University. And it could be that bosses, you know, are getting all of this training on what to say, what not to say, to various people, groups that are identified as marginalized in some cases or discriminated against traditionally, and we’ve all had that, it’s happening in the private sector also. But I wonder if it’s easier to be cavalier about age now, because of all of these other sensitivities that managers have to worry about. So maybe they let their guard down and say, hey, you old guy, we’re gonna move your desk in the hall or something like that. I imagine that must happen somewhere.

Bob Tobias: It may be, Tom, but I think it’s even more fundamental than that. It’s me as a leader, how do I see you as a person working in my group? Am I making the connection with you, where you choose to give me your discretionary energy? Now, if you’re choosing to give me your discretionary energy because I have created this kind of an environment, you’re not filing complaints, most leaders don’t have a clue about how to do that.

Tom Temin: Well, where can they learn to do that? I mean, how do you get that skill? Because as you say that discretionary energy, it’s almost like love, you need to have an infinite amount of it so that it stretches over everyone that reports to you.

Bob Tobias: All right, everyone who reports to you could make the choice to give you their discretionary energy. And in those agencies, where there’s high engagement that’s what people choose to do. Now, in answer to your question, though, five or six years ago, the Merit Systems Protection Board did a study that was focused on people in the SES, but they said where leadership development programs exist, and members of the SES went to those programs, have scores increased. So the programs are available, American University has these kinds of programs. But you know, agencies don’t invest in them.

Tom Temin: Right, the implication here is that some people are natural, dynamic leaders that everyone feels that they have the empathy from, and are willing to give their discretionary energy, I think we’ve all had, if we’re lucky, one or two bosses like that in our careers, everyone else, you need to be schooled in this kind of thing. And these are skills that a manager can learn. If he or she so chooses.

Bob Tobias: They can be and they’re more than skills, I mean, a skill is I can manage the technology. Leadership development is personal development, so that I can actually engage with you. That I can create a trusting work environment. I might want to do it, I might not know how to do it. And I’m suggesting that more leaders ought know how to do it.

Tom Temin: And also, I think it’s just a simple matter of listening and understanding the room. And you can’t really, I’ve learned over the years, you can’t judge a person’s, I don’t know how to put it, their flexibility, their ability to learn new things, their ability to try things, based on age. I’ve known 80-year-olds with 10 times more energy and imagination than some 20-year-olds. So it’s not really a function of age, it’s the function of that person. And you need to be able to adjust your style, not to the age or whatever else you perceive on the outside of the person, but what they show you from their actions, who they are on the inside.

Bob Tobias: I couldn’t say a better, Tom, and show you the other problem is an awful lot of managers spend all of their time doing and not much of their time leading. So they’re doing things instead of spending the time that you suggest they ought be spending, listening to those they try to lead.

Tom Temin: And I will say at least government has one advantage because you don’t have to rise that high in the hierarchy before you get a secretary or an administrative assistant, which have probably 90% of that job have disappeared from the private sector. You know, computers have turned everyone into a secretary. And so unfortunately, a lot of managers spend time on tasks that frankly an assistant could do better. But they have to do because I don’t have one.

Bob Tobias: Well, there’s that, too, Tom. But if I’m a leader, my job is to focus on doing those things which cannot be delegated. And one of the things that cannot be delegated is creating a relationship with you a person that I lead.

Tom Temin: And we’ll leave it right there. Good advice. Bob Tobias is a professor in the Key Executive Leadership Program, and I emphasize those words, at American University. As always, thanks so much.

Bob Tobias: Thank you, Tom.

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