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Four Ways to Navigate the US Federal Hiring Freeze

While all the details are not yet clear, the size and shape of America's federal government will change significantly; federal leaders should start preparing now

President Donald Trump’s federal hiring freeze sends a clear message – the US administration will take broad, sweeping steps to reduce the size of the federal government.

While the January 23rd memo that announced it focused on cutting vacancies and limiting new positions, federal leaders should anticipate that the guidance from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) will include limits on backfilling open positions and potentially a staffing cap that agencies will need to work within.

The big challenge of using a hiring freeze to resize the federal workforce is that it’s impossible for agencies to hold on to employees they want to keep, and – with the potential limits on backfills – they can’t simply rehire people for those positions. Frankly, leaders should anticipate that many of their best people will leave. In 2015 alone, US federal separations hit over 230,000 employees in the executive branch of government, according to the OPM FedScope database. This accounted for about 11% of the total FY2015 workforce.

Don’t Wait and See

Those running federal agencies will be keen to minimize the potential of an 11% cut to their own workforce. And that means they shouldn’t just wait for politicians to set the strategy for the organization, say how they expect it to be implemented, and to tell the workforce what to expect.

While it may feel logical to do this, the result of waiting can cause real harm. Traditional responses to difficult change – like waiting to hear from the top of the organization before taking any action – result in 24% of employees expressing anger, 51% feeling anxious, and high performers are more likely to view times of change as a good time to leave, according to CEB analysis.

Senior managers across government should spend time now understanding what the scenarios are for the future, and planning accordingly.

A Better Path: Know Your Risks

In fact, there are four things that they can do now. Taking lessons from workforce planning strategies, leaders should identify and manage the biggest risks right away.

Knowing that not all positions are created equal, they should use scenario planning to understand where they will need high-performers, and to make sure they limit attrition in those critical roles.

  1. Prioritize critical roles: Segment roles into a four category framework to predict which ones will be needed in the future, recognize roles which will be consistently important, the requisite roles, and roles that will decline in relevancy. The segmentation helps leaders to prioritize for risk mitigation.

  2. Project potential gaps: According to the Office of Personal Management, 32% of federal employees report intent to leave their current organization. It’s no surprise, as during times of times of uncertainty and change employee intent to stay at an organization drops.

    Leaders should evaluate the potential for attrition, looking at criteria like retirement eligibility, performance levels, employee engagement and competitiveness of the job market. The Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS) and other like engagement assessments provide great insight into the things that the business unit or organization should be doing to improve engagement across teams. Leaders should spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to solve this.

  3. Mitigate risk areas: Leaders should draw up a plan for mitigating the risk of losing employees in critical roles. Organizations across the globe have implemented actions like role clusters, deliberate rotation programs, and skip level talent management to offset some of gaps across the workforce – creating options for both employees and the organization during more turbulent times.

  4. Talk to your employees: Regardless of the OMB guidance, the federal workforce of today will not look like the federal workforce of tomorrow – some agencies will shrink, others may grow, new priorities will be set and others will end. Leaders need to help employees navigate change – focusing on engagement through change – to show that that change is happening with them rather than to them.

    Create a dialogue with the workforce by asking questions, creating a safe environment for open discussion and support peer-to-peer interactions. Creating a more open approach to change can improve intent to stay by as much as 46% and engagement by 38%.

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