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October 2015
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The Public Manager

Employee Engagement Encompasses Workplace Culture and Climate

Learn how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission continues to score high marks for engagement on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

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During an August 2015 Association for Talent Development Government Community of Practice webinar, " Employee Engagement Best Practices at NRC," sponsored by Blackboard, Jody Hudson, deputy chief human capital officer for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), outlined the steps that his agency takes to leverage the available data and stay atop the field in terms of engaged employees. He also offered best practices for other agencies.

The Opportunity

According to a Gallup poll, less than one-third of the U.S. workforce was engaged in 2014. The good news is that those numbers are much better for the federal workforce—with an overall engagement rate of 63 percent, according to the 2014 Federal Employment Viewpoint Survey (FEVS). Yet the numbers are dropping. An engaged workforce means higher productivity, lower staff turnover rate, improved safety, fewer defects, and lower absenteeism.

It is little wonder that the government workforce might feel less enthusiastic about their work and work product. Slashed budgets, frozen pay, and widespread criticism of government in the media are likely culprits. As the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) defines it, employee engagement is the "employees' sense of purpose that is evident in their display of dedication, persistence, and effort in their work or overall attachment to their organization and its mission."

According to the OPM's Employee Engagement Index, three subfactors play a significant role in employee engagement:

  • the degree to which leaders lead—in other words, employee perceptions of the integrity and communication behaviors of leaders
  • the relationship between employees and supervisors, including such elements as trust and support
  • the overall intrinsic work experience, or how motivated and competent employees feel about their jobs.

The Solution

The NRC takes these numbers seriously. The commission—and likely other agencies that score well on the FEVS—doesn't look at engagement as something to consider once a year, but continuously addresses it throughout the year. That, Hudson explains, is one of the best practices to ensuring engaged employees.

In fact, the NRC doesn't simply conduct an organizational survey, review its findings, and attempt to target areas and develop or revise practices—as is the general process used by most organizations. Rather, the commission implements a continuous annual cycle of engagement, one that includes a multilevel communication effort around employee response to the survey. In the fast-moving world that is the new normal, Hudson explains that they didn't want engagement levels to deteriorate; thus, they "don't want to engage once a year or once a month.”

This communication effort is not headed up by human resources, though they are certainly involved with employee engagement efforts. Instead, the NRC leverages senior leadership and line management to drive the response rate to the FEVS, and to thank employees for their participation in the survey.

The commission also prides itself in having a transparent culture. In reviewing the data, the action plan moving forward consists of securing buy-in from employees and managers and is openly shared. Everyone knows which factors are being addressed, and specific actions that are being taken.

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But in monitoring its employee engagement levels, the NRC doesn't stop with the FEVS data. The commission reviews employee complaints and grievances, Equal Employment Opportunity complaints, and organizational development initiatives when deciding which steps to take to make improvements.

While Hudson's team and the NRC look at the three factors taken into account by the FEVS—leaders, supervisors, and the alignment of work—he explains that much of employee engagement is about workplace culture and climate. "Every workplace culture should be built on a solid foundation,” says Hudson.

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The NRC's foundation, for example, is based on protecting human health and the environment, and its organizational values are integrity, service, openness, commitment, cooperation, excellence, and respect. To determine an organization's values, employees and managers should have a dialogue with input from both sides about what values they consider important and what they mean. Make the values real—a living set of ideals, recommends Hudson, not just values that are hung on a wall and forgotten.

Hudson summed up the best practices that the NRC uses to improve and maintain high employee engagement levels:

  • conduct a continuous annual cycle of review and action
  • communicate on multiple levels
  • pinpoint key factors that drive engagement
  • go beyond FEVS data to use all relevant information you have available
  • focus on both the enterprise level and the local level
  • don't make engagement just an HR initiative; leverage other groups, including senior leaders
  • build a solid cultural foundation and organizational climate
  • harvest the best practices that already exist at your agency. Some departments do it better than others, so learn from them.

The Results

The NRC has ranked among the top three of 37 large agencies and departments in employee engagement during the past five years, according to the FEVS. Its rating in 2014 was an impressive 75 percent versus the 63 percent government-wide rating. While both the ratings for the NRC and government as whole have dropped, there are extenuating circumstances resulting from budget cuts, pay freezes, and government shutdowns. Bottom line: NRC has learned that agencies and departments would be wise to harness all available data—external data such as the FEVS and internal best practices in a specific division. Doing so can lead to greater employee engagement if practices are continuous, communication is multitiered, and both managers and employees have input into a living workplace values system and culture.

ATD Resources

Teleworking Thrives at U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (The Public Manager article)

Creating Engaged Employees (ATD book)

The Managers Employee Engagement Toolbox (ATD book)

Essentials of Driving Results Through Employee Engagement (ATD Education program)

Talent Engagement Across the Generations (Infoline)

About the Author

Patty Gaul is a senior writer/editor for the Association for Talent Development (ATD).

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