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Feds rank worst bosses, best bosses

Mar. 31, 2013 - 10:04AM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments

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One Internal Revenue Service employee says her boss's attitude and management style have given her anxiety attacks and caused morale to drop across her office.

Customs and Border Protection managers and leaders encourage litigation rather than collaboration when they disregard union contract provisions on scheduling and leave, one union leader says.

And while temporary Forest Service firefighters were pleased to be extended health benefits last year, other temporary employees were frustrated not to get the same benefits, a Forest Service retiree told Federal Times.

Many other employees have complaints about their supervisors, managers and agency leaders, responses to the latest governmentwide employee satisfaction survey show.

According to a Federal Times analysis of the survey results, agencies whose employees rate their bosses and leaders poorly include the Agriculture, Homeland Security, Interior, Education and Commerce departments. Among the agencies deemed to have among the worst bosses by their employees: DHS' Transportation Security Administration, Agriculture's Forest Service, and the Veterans Affairs Department's Veterans Health Administration. Smaller agencies, like Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Broadcasting Board of Governor's Voice of America, are also among them.

Almost 690,000 employees from 292 agencies filled out the Office of Personnel Management's 2012 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, by far the biggest response rate ever for that survey.

To compile its list of agencies with the worst bosses, Federal Times examined responses to 22 survey questions and statements, such as “My supervisor/team leader treats me with respect” and “How satisfied are you with the policies and practices of your senior leaders?” Federal Times divided those responses into three categories — to gauge employee satisfaction with their supervisors, managers and agency leaders. OPM defines supervisors as those responsible for conducting employee performance appraisals; managers are people who oversee at least one supervisor; and leaders are top-ranking agency managers such as Senior Executive Service members.

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TSA employees placed their supervisors and managers among the bottom 10 agencies.

Kimberly Kraynak-Lambert, a behavior detection officer at TSA and president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 332, said employees are frustrated by managers and leaders who do not recognize the hard work employees do and who have not removed bad managers and supervisors.

“We have many people across the country hired into management positions that really have no business being in those positions,” Kraynak-Lambert said.

Bosses who shine

John Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, said communication and engagement tend to be the most important factors in how employees assess their bosses.

It is not enough to send out periodic emails to employees; supervisors and managers must get out and listen to their workers — and incorporate their opinions into decisions.

“Leaders who can break through that barrier and develop a better connection with their employees will see much more positive feelings,” Palguta said.

Some highly technical agencies, such as NASA, appear to have an edge in overall employee satisfaction with management, but that edge is only a small part of employee feelings toward their bosses, Palguta said. Agencies such as NASA and the Patent and Trademark Office have cultivated workplaces where employees feel their opinions matter, he said.

“The agency leaders there have worked hard for many years at having a good work environment,” Palguta said.

Robert Tobias, director of the Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University, said even when agencies have to make tough decisions, it helps to communicate what the issues are to employees. Even when the decisions are outside agency control, such as congressional appropriations, employees appreciate hearing how they are affected.

But canned speeches won't work, Tobias said. “I have to be authentic to be able to create the trust I need to be able to create connections between employees and managers,” he said.

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Henry Romero, a former Office of Personnel Management executive and senior adviser at government consultant Federal Management Partners, agreed that communication and engagement have a significant impact on how employees feel about their bosses.

Agencies at the bottom of Federal Times' rankings are more likely to have managers and leaders who are more isolated and don't connect as well with workers as do bosses of agencies at the top of the rankings, he said.

“Agencies who have managers that participate and encourage employees to voice their views and use their suggestions contribute greatly to positive scores,” Romero said.

Problems and solutions

The Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs supervisors and managers ranked among the bottom 10 agencies. Michael Jennings, executive director of the Federation of Indian Service Employees, which represents workers at the bureau, said employees feel their mission is at times in conflict with other Interior Department priorities, such as mining permits.

BIA employees also feel their complaints are not taken seriously by managers and by agency leaders, Jennings said.

“There is a lot of resentment within the agency,” Jennings said.

Voice of America managers and supervisors also ranked near the bottom. Tim Shamble, president of AFGE Local 1812, which represents Voice of America employees, said there is almost no communication between managers and employees.

“Managers are up in their ivory towers making their decisions, and they are just announced to the rest of us,” Shamble said.

Because of continuous reductions-in-force and a series of union grievances that have gone to arbitration, employees do not believe management is on their side. “There is a definite divide here,” Shamble said.

Spokesman Kyle King said Voice of America takes these issues seriously and has rolled out a detailed plan to engage employees and promote communication and accountability. The agency also is forming issue-oriented teams that will implement employee suggestions. Those steps will be part of a multi-year effort to improve the workplace and raise employee satisfaction, King said.

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The VA's Veterans Health Administration was another place where supervisors, managers and leader ranked low. William Lauth, an emergency physician at VA's Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in Chicago, said VHA employees believe their bosses are disconnected from the realities of providing health care. Employees with complaints have to go through a complicated chain of command.

“Our supervisors have no conception of what is really going on,” Lauth said.

There appears to be a similar disconnect between bosses and employees at the Forest Service, whose supervisors ranked among the bottom 10 agencies. Mark Davis, who retired in September as a Forest Service chemist, said many managers and agency leaders don't understand the work employees have to do every day.

“People come in with their agendas and pet projects, and they implement them without understanding what employees see as the real problems,” Davis said. Instead of helping, many managers are obstacles to employees who want to do the best job they can.

A decision last year to extend health benefits to temporary firefighters but not to all temporary workers proved frustrating to many employees. “It just makes no sense to limit it to firefighters,” Davis said. The Forest Service hires thousands of employees who work a few months out of the year maintaining trails, clearing brush, running recreational programs and maintaining facility grounds.

DHS' Customs and Border Protection leaders also ranked near the bottom of Federal Times' ranking. Colleen Kelley, national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents CBP employees, called the score “dismal.”

“These results are destined to be repeated until the agency changes its way of doing business and works with front-line employees and their representatives to make meaningful improvements,” Kelley said.

Part of the problem is that management and leaders disregard provisions of the union contract in regard to scheduling and leave policies, she said.

“This contributes to a labor-management environment that is based more on litigation than collaboration,” Kelley said.

Spokeswoman Marsha Catron said DHS is taking steps to improve employee engagement and to increase employee recognition for good work.

DHS is also creating an Employee Engagement Executive Steering Committee consisting of leaders from all DHS agencies who will meet regularly to share ideas and identify ways to improve the work environment.

“Given this strong foundation and our commitment to employee engagement, we expect to continue to make progress in the coming years,” Catron said.

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