Enhancing the Role of the Federal Supervisor

The primary criteria for job satisfaction in the private sector is getting along with your boss. Does it make much difference in the federal sector?

The federal government is moving away from its entrenched system of giving the same basic pay raise and within-grade increases to all employees. Under the current system, getting along with the supervisor may not be as important as it is under a system where an employee’s pay is determined by the job rating the supervisor hands out to an employee at the end of a rating period.

In fact, in some cases at least, the role of a federal supervisor is not too important in how much pay a federal employee gets, at least in his current job. Annual pay raises are determined by a vast bureaucracy from the President and Congress to the Office of Personnel Management and then passed down through the system to the worksite.

Within-grade increases are also virtually automatic and any supervisor who wants to stop the process will soon find a wall of rules, regulations and possibly hearings and written notices facing someone who is already busy with meeting other requirements. The quick and easy way is to ignore an employee who may not be performing and get on with the job.

The existing system is a “benign socialism” where everyone gets the same basic pay, annual increases and within-grade increases without much regard to performance.

Most private sector businesses could not operate under this system as it is imperative to increase or at least have a profit in order to survive as a business. The result is that the supervisor usually determines how much raise, if any, to give an individual employee based on that supervisor’s perceived value of the employee’s contribution. In some companies there is a rating system of some kind. In many, no such system exists; it all resides with the supervisor.

The problem is that while a lot of people don’t like the current system because it seems obvious such a system will not reward the best performers or punish those who aren’t willing to work as hard, what will replace it? And, with a system that allows or even encourages litigation in a variety of forums at no cost to the employee, putting in a new system can be a nightmare. The result has been little or no change in the overall system for over 50 years.

From the e-mail we received at FedSmith.com, a pay-for-performance system is not a popular step with many federal employees who fear what a new one will bring. “A return to the good old boy system” is the most common refrain. It is not clear when the good old boy system existed so that the government can return to it but the underlying fear in many of these notes is that the supervisor will control the employee’s paycheck amount.

We can’t be sure if this is a new feature in the federal workplace because getting along with your boss has long been a staple requirement in most places of work. According to the chairman of Accountemps, a staffing firm in California, “Employees are most productive when they feel their contributions are valued and their feedback is welcomed by management.”

A recent survey conducted by Messemer’s company found that the chief factors leading to job satisfaction and job success for an employee are how a person gets along with the boss.

In other words, getting along with your boss or knowing your boss values your work can be more important than pay and benefits when it comes to job satisfaction.

The Department of Homeland Security will provide an interesting social experiment for government. It has an opportunity to reduce the litigation and the authority to try and instill a different workplace culture in a large organization. There is no doubt the new system will be attacked from within.

Watching the outcome will be interesting for those of us who have the pleasure of watching from the outside. We look forward to hearing comments from those who are participating in the experiment!

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47