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The risks and rewards of rotations

Feb. 10, 2014 - 03:42PM   |  
By TYLER ROBINSON   |   Comments
Tyler Robinson is the Chairman of the Executive Board for Young Government Leaders, and Portfolio Risk Officer at the Export-Import Bank of the United States.


Rotations – the practice of allowing employees to work temporarily for a different group or organization – have many benefits, but also many risks. On the whole, rotations are an excellent tool to develop individuals and provide more benefits than costs.

Young Government Leaders conducted a survey of its members, asking what they thought should be included in the recent graduates program. The top response out of 12 possible options, with 85 percent picking it, was rotations. Furthermore, 92 percent of respondents think rotational assignments are effective or very effective.

From my experience doing a rotation as part of the Presidential Management Fellows program, and from conversations I have had with others, there are two main benefits:

■ During a rotation, new skills are learned. This is especially the case when there is a specific, time-bound project. If one wants to have someone rotate into their office, think about whether there is a special, short-term project they can tackle. Many positions take several months to learn and, as rotations are generally also a handful of months, trying to train someone to fully take on a new position is difficult. For me, I was given simple tasks to help the office where they were short-handed, but was given one main project over the 5 months where I could really focus and produce a beneficial product to the agency.

■ Rotation exposes one to a different group doing different things, and can help those in the rotation find out what types of things they do well and don’t do well in a lower pressure environment. These short-term assignments give employees an opportunity to try new things, which will help them become more well-rounded.

However, there are risks to the manager whose employee goes on a rotation. Again, there are two primary concerns:

■ If the absent employee’s work can’t be spread around among other team members, the organization will have a loss productivity during the rotation.

■ The employee might leave after the rotation. Another YGL survey of former Presidential Management Fellows found that slightly more than two-thirds stayed in the same office where they were initially hired, while others left for other jobs.

There are a few things managers can do to reduce the risks involved with rotations and still give employees opportunities to increase their skill set. The first is to have an open conversation beforehand with their employee on why they want to go on a rotation. The goal is not to shop around for a new position. A rotation that compliments their current position is important, as bringing back new skills is a key benefit of the rotation. Another idea is to have someone rotate into the office to fill the spot that is being left. This will not completely eliminate the loss of productivity, as mentioned earlier it is difficult to quickly train someone to take on a new position.

Another idea is to develop a rotational program within the division or agency. This can be very helpful as the exchange of employees increases cross-training and helps determine where employees have their best fit. Agencies that embrace the idea of finding an employee’s best fit can increase retention, productivity, and morale.

Finally, the challenges to managers of having employees rotate are real, but the long term benefits to employees, agencies, and the government as a whole are worth it. For managers that have not considered rotations before, I would encourage you to try it on a small scale, perhaps just within your larger division. It can be a few employees switching roles and as the division increases its experience with rotations the program can be expanded.

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