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COMMENTARY | Enact a strategy that embraces people, purpose, growth and learning in your organization.
The public sector is facing recruiting challenges due to accelerating retirement rates and a shortage of qualified candidates. But they are also facing stiff competition from the private sector. It’s difficult to attract today’s candidates when you are seen as highly bureaucratic and old-fashioned. And it’s hard to win over those candidates when you are also hampered by lower wages, slow advancement, unclear career paths and limited staff development.
To attract talent, the public sector needs to think differently. It needs to start developing a people-focused culture that invests in employees’ purpose, growth and learning.
Many governments have already successfully embraced performance metrics in an effort to make themselves more efficient and effective. But these efforts have often come at the expense of instilling in employees the organization’s larger mission.
When I worked as the assistant director of human resources for the city of Fort Worth, Texas, I saw this issue play out repeatedly. Every employee has a list of responsibilities and tasks. However, when faced with a problem that was outside the boundaries of defined job duties, that employee’s response was often, “This is above my pay grade”.
But why was it above the employee’s pay grade? Why do we not allow an employee to try to solve the problem or at least hand it off to the right team or individual so that the issue can be resolved?
I have always felt that this is because an employees’ success is measured by a checklist of tasks and key performance indicators. As long as they meet those goals, they are considered top performers. But in just holding the employees responsible for their day-to-day tasks, the organization loses sight of its larger purpose, and that has negative ramifications for how the public sector is viewed by its constituents and, especially, potential job applicants.
Creating a Culture of Engagement and Trust
The public sector needs to rethink its approach to accomplishing its organizational objectives. One way of doing this is by promoting the organization’s mission and cultivating a climate of engagement with that mission. Through this, the public sector can attract and retain talent.
According to Gallup’s U.S. Employee Engagement Survey, employee engagement saw its first annual decline in a decade at the end of 2021 and the expectation is this pattern will continue into early 2022. These results indicate that an authentic employee experience should be practiced so employees can be aligned with the organization’s purpose and culture.
In Fort Worth, I decided to prioritize making us a purpose-driven organization after our own internal survey results indicated a clear lack of engagement among city employees. I started by overhauling our onboarding process to establish employee connection to the purpose of our organization. I created a strategy where senior leadership recorded creative videos that were embedded in the onboarding process. These videos talked about the organization’s vision, mission and values, as well as why the new hires were picked from a vast pool of candidates.
We also took steps to build an inclusive culture by designing a structured hiring process that minimizes bias and communicates diversity and inclusion.
Part of cultivating a climate of engagement is fostering trust and autonomy. Leaders talk about an atmosphere of trust but when employees step outside their role, they are often discouraged and told to stay in their lane. Leaders must realize that just talking about trust is not going to create it. An atmosphere of trust can be created by empowering employees and giving them an opportunity to express their ideas and have more autonomy over decisions. Empowering employees to collaborate across departments and breaking down silos can promote retention.
How to Leverage Technology in Service of Your Purpose
Technology can help achieve these goals. But it is important not to lose sight of the employee in the adoption of these tools. Leaders need to take a people-first approach when implementing new software solutions.
I took just such an approach when I leveraged technology to overhaul our onboarding process. I invested in a software that provided results-driven diversity, equity and inclusion capabilities that mitigate bias and force behavior change. The inclusion module of the applicant tracking system performed tangible functions, like nudging hiring managers and interviewers to focus on job-relevant qualifications while eliminating behavior that perpetuates implicit bias in the hiring process.
When leaders look at the big picture and prioritize resources towards changing processes and technology—with their organizational culture and employees in mind, particularly engaging those in the implementation—then the technological outcome can be harnessed efficiently.
It cannot be overstated how valuable it is for public sector leaders to take on the role of champions for all their employees, by celebrating diversity, encouraging employee empowerment and allowing them to be their authentic self at work.
In Fort Worth, I partnered with an executive development firm and rolled out a series of leadership development workshops that allowed senior officials to identify the role of emotional intelligence in effective leadership while teaching them the principles of servant leadership. The training brought about a major shift in mindset and set our organization on a path of success where leaders were now more open to drive change and continuously adapt while celebrating diversity of thought.
All these strategies are even more important as the workforce becomes more diffuse.
Public-sector leadership needs to nurture a culture of inclusivity with a sense of purpose that all employees can rally behind. They need to exert influence beyond the boundaries of their own hierarchy and allow the employees of the organization to also collaborate across the organization for efficient and effective results. And finally, they need to be willing to reimagine an organization with technology working in concert with its employees while connecting with the overall organizational objectives.
Ultimately, embracing a people-centric workforce can help to stabilize the public-sector workforce and allow it to regain its status as an employer of choice among job seekers.
Neena Kovuru is vice president of HR strategy & technologies with UKG. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with her via LinkedIn.
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