I Have to Ask: Employee Turnover

Posted on November 4, 2019


In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three questions from ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week, Noor Shaikh, City of Dallas, Texas, Manager III – Capital, Office of Budget, writes how local government can do a better job of retaining employees.

If you have been paying attention over the past few years you know that the US economy is doing well and that the job market doesn’t get much better than this. We have added jobs for 106 consecutive months and the unemployment rate dropped to a fifty year low earlier this year. Out of every 100 people who want to work, more than 96 have jobs. Job openings exceeded the number of unemployed Americans by 1.2 million in July, the 17th straight month of job openings outnumbering job seekers.

Employers who are desperate to fill positions may be loosening standards for new hires while workers looking for a new job may now have the option to pick between several opportunities. This translates – without much nuance – to it being a solid time to search for a new gig! If you don’t already work for a local government, this means you get to update your resume and come join us!!! 

This run towards greener pastures might great for job seekers, but it does mean that local governments (LGs from here on) now have to worry about an increasing amount of people leaving for other opportunities ON TOP OF what Ned Stark warned us about all those seasons ago: “the silver tsunami is coming” 

ChartIt seems like most LGs already knew this was a problem. In 2019, the Center for State & Local Government Excellence’s annual workforce survey found that:

  • 39% of the 302 responding organizations saw an increase in the number of employees quitting jobs over the prior year
  • 41% of 288 responders believed their wage compensation was not competitive with the labor market (56% believed it was)
  • Only 11% (of 287) thought their benefits compensation was not competitive with the labor market while 88% felt they offered competitive benefits

I decided to take a look at the 2018 survey as well to see what, if anything, was different. I found that in 2018:

  • 34% of 308 organizations noted the quits rate was higher than the prior year (the news isn’t fake, yall)
  • 82% reported staff recruitment and retention was their highest priority – this number increased to 87% in 2019. The 2018 survey also looked at 10-year trends. In 2012, only 39% of survey participants felt that retention was a top priority. Over the past three years, more than fifty percent of the responding organizations believed that recruitment and retention of qualified employees was their top priority – followed closely by employee morale and offering a competitive compensation package. 

To me, all three – retention and recruitment, compensation and morale – should be a part of a comprehensive ‘let keep ‘em’ plan. I would very likely leave a great paying job if the organization had a toxic culture and morale was low. I would be equally like to leave a job if morale was high, but I felt cheated knowing I was paid less than my peers elsewhere. 

As I read through the survey results and article after article about the tight labor market (while making this face), I tried to see if my personal experience fit the narrative being sold. I have worked for three cities in three different states and have found one common factor that speaks volumes about each organization: the amount of people I met with decades of experience with the same organization was/is high. This tells me that these organizations are doing something right. LGs – for those wanting to put down roots – are the perfect place to be. Your responsibilities can change through the years as your interest, skill level, and expertise grows. Working for a city allows for that. You can jump from cultural services to finance to IT to even construction projects. These opportunities for growth make the relationship between employee and employer one we should invest in. So despite some great reasons to stay, why is it that an increasing number of employees are leaving their jobs?

A quick poll on Twitter (results in the table below) – revealed that among the 56 folks who responded, the most popular reason for leaving a job was a lack of opportunity to grow with the same organization, followed by organization culture mismatch and then ‘other’ where people let me know that they left their last gig for reasons including: unreliable leadership, following a boss to a new organization, and other life priorities like the opportunity to move closer to loved ones. I was very surprised to see that only nine percent of participants left a job because of pay (I thought this might have been reason number one).

Q: Why did you leave your last job? 
No Growth Opportunities 41%
Organization Culture Mismatch 29%
Pay Below Market 9%
Other 21%

Dr. Michael D. Izard-Carroll looked at the impact of high turnover in his dissertation aptly titled “Public Sector Leaders’ Strategies to Improve Employee Retention.” He writes that organizations incur costs from turnover, that institutional knowledge is lost when employees leave, and that social relationships that shape an organization are challenged when these certain individuals leave. The motivation for leaving a gig can range from ‘I hate my commute and lack of public transit options’ to ‘I am allergic to the air here and need to find air elsewhere’- I would actually like to look at this from the organization’s point of view and question if cities are doing enough to keep their employees. 

The SLGE surveys revealed that year after year benefits continued to be a key strength for state and local governments, but that more experimentation and changes are needed. I think it’s time that ALL HR folks adopt a (not so) new mantra that benefits are not all monetary – and that sometimes it just takes a lil somethin’ else to convince someone to join your team and then stay on it. 

While we can’t compete with the likes of Netflix and their unlimited vacation policy or letting employees set their own pay – we can offer plenty else. I have made a wish list (below) of what I want my ideal employer to offer and want you to take from this as if it were advice from your favorite management consultant. Of note: this list includes incentives and retention strategies already offered and in use some cities:

  • Exit and stay interviews: If you have an office with high turnover – you don’t need a third party to come in and tell you what’s wrong (well, you still might), but start with simply ASKING why someone is leaving and also why someone else is choosing to stay.
  • Flexibility (Hours & Location) – the fact that there are still organizations that don’t offer this ‘benefit’ hurts my head. No one is productive between 8 to 5 only. If your employees have offsite access to needed information – having set eight to five hours is ridiculous. I’m ready for every organization – government or not – to give up this silly idea that butt-in-seat = productivity. I was working on a project earlier this summer that required a TON of hours and I found that I was most productive between 5 am and 10 am. I would get up and work for a few hours and then head in to work because, well, reread this bullet. NYT just wrote a great article about how Gen Z’s going to save us from office life and I am so onboard that train. 
  • Programs on programs on programs! Bonus: you get to come up with acronyms for them!

Job Rotation/Employee Exchange programs: (JR or EEPs?)

  • Work in sister cities – why cannot leverage these relationships to be mutually beneficial? If an American worker can spend six months in a sister city to help tackle a specific project while getting international experience, why can’t we make this happen? The learning exchange works both ways! This can be low cost if you’re just trading housing with the person you replaced (I’m sure there is a ton of legal stuff to work through here, but I’m just dreamin’ so I can pretend there isn’t any)
  • Work in different departments! Let your superstars learn from their peers in other departments and figure out for themselves that a city is a dynamic place to be. If someone’s interest in public works is waning – there is a whole lot else their organization does that they can learn about and move into.

Onboarding Programs

  • I might be biased, but Aurora, Colorado does an excellent job with it’s new employee city tour!

Recognition Programs

  • Yeah your team is great, but do they actually know you think that????
  • Transit Benefits (train and bus passes, also preloaded cards with the ability to use an ebike/electric scooter)
  • Wellness Incentives (offering discounts at local gyms, smoking cessation assistance, etc.)
  • Professional Development Opportunities: Including mentoring, in-house training, leadership development, as well as reimbursement for outside training and tuition
  • Student loan repayment financial assistance (aside from the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program – but maybe also offer help with navigating that mess)
  • Offering down-payment assistance if your employees are willing to move to and live in the community they serve 
  • Name new streets after employees who have been with the City for a certain amount of time ?
  • City Hall Coffee Shops. These should be a thing so city hall becomes a place where community is built, but also because I would love to come to work knowing I can get a great cup of joe at work.

Let’s get creative with our offers and convince people to join our local gov tribe for the long haul! If your organization offers some cool perks – tell me about them! Tweet @ me @ghostofliteracy!  

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