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High Turnover: When Everyone is Jumping Ship

Tom Fox | Partnership for Public Service

Last week in Washington at the Center for Government Leadership, the Partnership for Public Service trained nearly 190 federal leaders from more than two dozen agencies on business acumen. Two questions this week come from federal managers. Please continue sharing your ideas and questions by emailing me at

How can I engage an unmotivated employee? —Federal manager (GS-14), Small Business Administration

There’s nothing easy about motivating your employees. Understanding and tending to their motivations requires almost constant care and attention.

As a starting point, you need to understand why their motivation is suspect. Has the person grown bored by performing the same task repeatedly? Is he having trouble with a new task that he doesn’t fully understand? Does he enjoy the work? Is he having trouble with colleagues? The only way to find out is to ask.

Now, there may be any number of factors that could be affecting your employee’s motivation. Some you can affect. Some you cannot. If there are personnel conflicts, you can mediate those differences of opinion. If this person does not enjoy performing the work required of their job, you can shake-up their portfolio. However, at the end of the day, the work needs to be performed.

Start by talking with your employee. Try to find out what is affecting their motivation. If you can do something about it, work together to address the issue. If not, help your employee move on to a better fit.

My department has turnover rates of about 60 to 70 percent. Through informal interviews, I know that most people leave because of micro-management and low morale. How can I initiate a discussion about our leadership skills in the department? —Federal manager (GS-14), U.S. Food & Drug Administration

Surfacing this data provides a useful starting point for discussion and action.

You should encourage your leaders — with support from HR — to look at your department’s data from OPM’s employee viewpoint survey to see there are any underlying issues around morale and retention. If you don’t have data for your department, you might consider conducting a short, informal employee survey.

You might also consider 360-degree assessments — anonymous surveys of a leader’s employees, peers and superiors — and executive coaching to inform your department’s leaders about their strengths and weaknesses.

Finally, you might quantify the “costs” associated with losing folks — recruiting costs, the opportunity costs of interviewing, productivity losses — as a way of building a business case for change. For more ideas on this check out, Linda Bilmes and Scott Gould’s book The People Factor: Strengthening America by Investing in Public Service. Note the profile of Jeff Neal’s work at the Defense Logistics Agency in the book; he’s now the Chief Human Capital Officer at DHS. That might provide you with some additional ideas.

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