Break it Down: If You Want Me, Let Me Know

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August’s Topic: Will They Stay or Will They Go?

Recruiting and Retaining Excellent Local Government Employees

William Doerfer

By: Will Doerfer, Consultant with Martin-McGill Inc., LinkedIn & Twitter

Let me preface this article by saying that when I signed up to write it, I was an ICMA Local Government Management Fellow set on becoming a town manager in North Carolina. Currently, I work in the so-called “shadow government” also known as a consultant. While I support local governments across the state in my current role, and in many ways am doing more to benefit people than I could have as a manager of a small town, I am unexpectedly and unequivocally in the private sector. And while I am very happy with my current job, much of this article is based in the frustration associated with unsuccessfully attempting to enter the local public service.

Recruiting in the narrowest sense of the term is a complicated process with tons of rules and restrictions with years of law, administrative policies, and court rulings governing the appropriate procedure to recruit employees (and this is in North Carolina which is an at-will state), especially in the public sector. ICMA has existed for more than 100 years to professionalize the management of local government, to eliminate the “good ol’ boy system”, and ensure the ethical administration of government.

Under the current system, women and minority representation in the upper echelons of local government remains troubling. The recruitment process is rigorous, complicated, and uninviting. There are, however, ways to improve upon this process.

At the front end, hiring managers can learn from federal grant program requirements for procurement of services. After all, that is what hiring is, seeking a qualified professional to provide services to local government and its citizens. Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), for example, require the applicant to directly solicit firms from underrepresented communities such as women and minority owned businesses. This could be as simple as going to the HBCU’s and women’s colleges to recruit and invite qualified candidates to enter the recruitment process. While this may take some effort beyond posting the job ad to, it is well worth the effort – and who doesn’t like a travel day every now and then.

I have spent a significant amount of time applying for local government jobs in North Carolina. You click submit, or slip the resume into the mail (in my case with a tracking number because I have to know exactly when it is received for my spreadsheet) and sit. You sit and wait for a phone call that never comes. I have applications in that are over a year old and are still in “referred to hiring manager” or “received” status As a red-blooded American and Millennial bent on instant gratification, the indefinite waiting period is maddening!

So, what can we do in the profession?

Communicate! Confirmation emails and letters are nice. (At least you know that a penguin isn’t opening your application materials without the benefit of opposable thumbs.) A follow-up personalized email or letter is even better. I realize that some positions receive several hundred applications. In this case, an auto-generated email with, “thank you for applying, you are one of 472 applicants for this position, please do not expect a call or email unless you are selected to move on to the next phase.” After that, an auto-generated email saying that “we have selected 30 people for interview and you are not among the selectees. Thank you for your time.” It does not take much. Personally, I would rather face rejection than invisibility.

Retention:  How do you keep the ones you want?

I have two simple suggestions for retention:  time and mentoring.

Time is the most valuable and plentiful commodity that public service has to offer employees. I was talking to a former boss about how much I loved my ICMA Fellowship despite the low wage I was earning and long hours away from home.

When I suggest to give more time to employees, I DO NOT mean giving four hours of sick time every time you are “rewarding” someone. That tactic has limited benefit and employees grow weary of adding another four hours to their sick bank that they cannot use unless they’re sick or until they retire. One organization I worked for implemented this policy and some employees had over 500 hours of sick time banked!

When I talk about time flexibility, I’m talking about implementing a flexible schedule so parents can drop their kids off at school and be home to greet them. This may mean that you have to trust an employee works from home for a couple hours. If they are getting their work done, and they can get it done remotely, then why require them to sit in the office. Their work must be completed and you could have to be a system in place to ensure employees are not taking advantage of the time.

The second aspect of retention that does not require elaborate pay plans, Image result for mentoring memebonuses, or additional budget requests, is mentoring. When you hire a new employee, assign them a mentor who has been with the organization for some time. Experienced employees have the knowledge of their job duties, but they don’t know that the refrigerator on the left is for Cooperative Extension and the refrigerator on the right is for Administration! It gives new employees a familiar face in the morning, and if nothing else, reassurance that they showed up to the right floor this time.

There are other strategies to boost retention of workers in local government, but I thought these were two of the easiest to discuss. I have some suggested reading for you – Keeping the Millennials:  Why Companies Are Losing Billions In Turnover To This Generation – And What To Do About It by Dr. Joanne Sujansky and Dr. Jan Ferri-Reed. Another is Y In The Workplace:  Managing The “Me First” Generation by Nicole Lipkin, PsyD. and April Perrymore, PsyD.

Supplemental Reading