Why things are getting better at the Labor Department

Listen to the full interview with Deputy Labor Secretary Chris Lu

When Tom Perez became Labor Secretary two years ago, he faced some of the unhappiest employees in the government.

At that time, the department ranked second-to-last among big agencies in the Partnership for Public Service’s annual Best Places to Work list, based upon anonymous questionnaires that federal employees fill out as part of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

“We used to joke that the only people who scored lower than us were people who would probe body cavities — the TSA,” said Denny DeMay, president of the National Council of Field Labor Locals. It represents about 8,300 Labor Department employees.

Since he joined the department in 1980, DeMay said, he has witnessed a growing chasm between employees in the field and Washington, he said. Part of it came with changing social patterns: Employees with working spouses were less likely to move between headquarters and regions. Some of it was political. To DeMay, it felt like the George W. Bush administration did not believe in the department’s enforcement-focused mission.  While he had high hopes for Perez’s predecessor, Obama appointee Hilda Solis, they were largely unrealized. DeMay recalls Solis as “disengaged” from employees. Except for one or two of the department’s agencies, overall leaders acted as those they did not care about their employee viewpoint results, he said.

“When Secretary Perez came on board, that changed dramatically,” he said.

In the 2014 Best Places list, the Labor Department finished in the middle of the pack, earning the title of “most improved.” Agencies now have the results from this year’s viewpoint survey, although they have not been publicly released. But Labor’s leaders said they expected to see progress when the new rankings come out this fall.

“We’re the Department of Labor and we need to be the model employer,” said Deputy Labor Secretary Chris Lu, who joined the organization in April 2014. “From day one, we focused not just on getting our numbers up, but on engaging employees in the important work that we do here at the department.”

The effort is strategic, he said.

“While we’d love to have more money to hire more people, to have better technology — and we’re certainly going to advocate for all of that — our real ability to perform the mission of this department, which I think is one of the most noble missions in the federal government, is really dependent on getting more out of our employees,” he said.

Lu said he and Perez believe in employee engagement so much that they talk about it at least five times a day. They’ve told agency and subagency leaders to create strategies to boost engagement.

“We hold their feet to the fire every time we meet with them,” he said.

The department has borrowed and expanded on ideas that worked elsewhere in the government, said Deputy Chief of Staff Seema Nanda, during a recent conference sponsored by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Listening tours led to some quick wins that built trust between Labor’s leadership and its employees, she said. Now, the department is embarking on more ambitious projects.

Listening, in person and online

The department launched an online suggestion box called IdeaMill to gather employees’ ideas about how to improve the organization. At first, it was “a nightmare to administer,” Nanda admitted.

It’s since been refined. Now, employees vote for suggestions that they like. When a suggestion gets a certain number of votes, leaders in Washington consider it. Now, Lu’s staff is working on ways to increase employees’ participation throughout the year.

The Labor Department launched IdeaMill to solicit its employees' ideas and feedback about their working conditions.
The Labor Department launched IdeaMill to solicit its employees’ ideas and feedback about their working conditions.

Lu said he checks it regularly to see what employees are discussing. He also uses it to solicit potential solutions to the organization’s problems. He has crowdsourced ideas for nonfinancial ways to recognize exemplary employees. At least once a month, he spends a day shadowing employees in the field. Periodically, he turns to IdeaMill to ask employees whom he should visit next, he said.

Like many other new government leaders, Perez and his deputies embarked on listening tours during their first year in office. At several stops, they held separate sessions with rank-and-file workers and managers to encourage employees to speak up.

DeMay went to several sessions for union members. He said he was struck by the sincerity of the department’s new leaders.

“People would go and point out problems and they took notes,” he said.

Labor Department moves quickly to capitalize on listening sessions

Cataloging the ideas that employees shared was critical to building credibility, Lu said.

“Listening sessions work great in year one,” he said. “But if you don’t deliver on anything that you’ve heard, people aren’t coming back in year two.”

Some solutions seemed obvious. Employees still had to sign in and out of work each day, even though they recorded their work hours electronically. The daily logs fueled resentment among workers who felt as though the department did not trust them.

“It was a very easy symbol of what was wrong with this department, so we got rid of it,” Lu said.

Like many other federal departments, Labor had cut training and development opportunities to save money in recent years. But in the listening sessions, employees repeatedly complained that new supervisors did not have leadership skills.

The department collaborated with the Partnership for Public Service on a management training program. Called Leading@Labor, it includes a one-day session for all supervisors and a four-day program for more experienced ones. The training covers communication, trust, employee development and employee recognition, according to the nonprofit.

Quick wins lead to more ambitious projects

The department has taken bigger risks with two projects that address how employees do their jobs.

A months-long trial program that lets employees flex their work hours will end in September. The department launched it earlier this year after learning that it was far behind other federal agencies when it came to workplace flexibility.

“In terms of being a model employer, we didn’t have enough different ways for people to work,” said Lu. “We needed to adapt.”

Some managers initially resisted out of concern that it would be harder for them to supervise employees who were not at the office, he said. But the leadership has encouraged them to take advantage of the program as well. It helps, Lu said, that the concept was old hat elsewhere in the government.

“We were not embarking on something novel,” he said.

Initial results show the pilot program has boosted employees’ morale and productivity, he said. But the department has not decided whether to make it permanent. A “rigorous evaluation” will determine that, Lu said.

If the workplace flexibility program helped Labor catch up to other agencies, a forthcoming “civility  project” may put it ahead of the curve. Lu said he hopes it will improve relations between coworkers and encourage all employees to speak up. The administration is hashing out the details now with the department’s labor unions.

“We haven’t settled on what shape it might take, but it’s as simple as, ‘How do we greet each other in the hallways,’ to ‘How do we have meetings and work through disagreements?'” he said.

The scarcity of resources at Labor offices, coupled with modest pay raises and increased political scrutiny have put pressure on employees, DeMay said. They are more stressed out now than they were a decade ago. That stress can spill over to workplace relations, he said.

The new civility project signals, “We’re all going to be here. We all have a job to do. Let’s make it a better place to work,” he said. “And long term, I think that’s going to have a very positive impact.”

Lasting change requires addressing the racial gap

The project has the potential to help the Labor Department overcome a challenge that has proved stubborn across the government.

Listening sessions uncovered dramatic differences between how white employees and those of color, particularly African Americans, viewed their workplaces. Lu describes the divergence as “startling” and “disturbing.” At the core, he said, was a perception that people of color lacked opportunities to rise through the department’s ranks.

“There’s a fair amount of truth to it,” he said.

More than a third of the Labor Department’s employees are people of color. But that diversity is not reflected at the department’s highest levels. Nearly all of its Senior Executive Service members are white.

The imbalance is apparent throughout the government and it’s not easy to fix, Lu acknowledged. But for a department in which the leader is Latino and his deputy is Asian-American, it’s a problem that is hard to ignore. In addition to targeted recruitment strategies and retention policies, the department has to create an environment in which differences are celebrated, Lu said. The civility project, if executed well, could put the department on that path.

As Obama administration appointees, Perez and Lu have limited time left to make their marks on the department. Success ultimately will depend on the support of career employees, Lu said.

“It would be a disappointment to me and the secretary if we came back five years after we’ve left and the policies that we’ve put in place hadn’t stuck,” he said.

But he said he is encouraged by a change he’s noticed in managers’ attitudes.

“There’s starting to be greater buy-in that a more engaged workforce is a more productive workforce,” he said. “It’s not me saying this or the secretary saying that, but it’s frontline managers understanding that.”

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