A number of DoD civilians are going back to work today, but that doesn’t mean all is forgiven for the federal workforce. Frustration didn’t just rise up in one week of furloughs, but has built up over years of pay freezes, lowering morale and political bantering that puts government workers in the middle. Given that frustration, is change possible? Could Congress actually kiss and make up with its workforce? Practically, what would that look like?

The unanimous passage by the House of HR 3223 (Federal Employee Retroactive Pay Fairness Act) is a step in the right direction. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s decision to allow most of the defense department’s civilian employees back to work is another step. Ideally, that would be the end of the saga. Unfortunately, it’s not.

Talent retention isn’t an issue reserved solely for the federal government. Many companies struggle to retain high performers. However, talent retention becomes more critical for the federal government when it has the potential to save taxpayer money and provide continuity of operations for key missions and tasks that help the American people.

Today’s budget climate makes retention even more important – Congress should seek to maintain the investment it’s made in training and hiring federal workers.

Rewarding top talent has been a struggle within the DOD, and over the last three years, many of the few available reward mechanisms have been reduced or eliminated. So what can the DOD do, given the current conditions and realistic forecast?


Although the federal employee frustrations aren’t all due to money, lifting the pay freezes, reinstating cost of living adjustments, and providing monetary rewards would be a giant step that says federal employees are actually valued. Quality Step Increases (QSIs), which are a way to move top talent through the GS pay scale faster, could also help with talent retention. QSIs haven’t been eliminated, but they require so many higher levels of approval that supervisors do not bother with them.


The DOD could also provide greater employee recognition with civil servant awards and missions. Unfortunately, politicians (and the general public) promote the bad federal employee examples as the example of the typical federal employee. Edward Snowden and Aaron Alexis do not represent the typical defense contractor. Laziness should not be seem as the primary quality of federal employees. If successes aren’t highlighted, outsiders only get a negative piece of the picture.


Travel and conference attendance are a way to provide growth and new ideas for federal employees. Again, some really bad examples of wasteful government conferences have received prime coverage, and understandably there was outrage. However, the pendulum swung too far in the opposite direction and greatly reduced or eliminated conference attendance, training, and travel for many employees.


The DOD does provide a variety of important missions that constantly challenge and stretch employees, which is actually a key retention strategy. Unfortunately, political issues, have begun to overshadow mission work. Time is invested – not in critical functions – but in stop-work orders, adjusting timelines and implementation strategies, and answering budget drills.

Assuming sequestration is here to stay, the DOD should take the liberty to implement it strategically. For example, not every agency in the DOD needed to furlough employees during the summer; however, leadership decided that the entire agency should share the pain. Instead of this being a noble gesture, it actually created the feeling of punishment for the agencies that spent funds wisely. Putting everything in the same pool hurts all programs regardless of the programs’ importance levels.

Federal workers don’t want to leave government service – those who have stuck with it this long have strong ties to the mission and a commitment to their work. But top talent will leave for the private sector if changes aren’t made.

A small book could be written on federal employee retention. Leadership could do much to improve the current work conditions, but small steps in some major areas could go a long way. Federal employees simply ask to be paid, recognized, invested in, and challenged.

Related News

Jillian Hamilton has worked in a variety of Program Management roles for multiple Federal Government contractors. She has helped manage projects in training and IT. She received her Bachelors degree in Business with an emphasis in Marketing from Penn State University and her MBA from the University of Phoenix.