Improving Workplace Climate: A Recruitment and Retention Strategy

Nearly three years after the start of the pandemic, U.S. cities and counties still face challenges in recruiting and retaining good employees. In North Carolina alone, 61% of local governments report higher numbers of unfilled budgeted positions since the pandemic, and over half report increases in turnover. This trend has left local governments scrambling to either stop the hemorrhage of employees or jumpstart their recruitment efforts.

While local governments can (and should) employ a wide range of recruitment and retention strategies, improving workplace climate should be a top priority. Because the most common strategy – increased pay – will only go so far. Throwing money at employees will do no good if their workplace climates are toxic or even just mediocre.

Workplaces are like human bodies. A thousand things can harm health, even seemingly small things. Ever had a broken toe? It won’t kill you, but it will alter your life experience until it heals. In local government workplaces, things like top-down decision-making and workplace incivility not only reduce the quality of work lives but also contribute to workplace burnout.

What can local governments do to improve workplace climate?

Listen to your employees. Our favorite form of listening — no surprise — is the workplace climate survey (also called employee engagement surveys). If done properly, these surveys can diagnose the psychological and emotional aspects of workplace experiences. Here are some tips for surveying employees:

**Use a third-party to do the survey. Employees can be afraid that speaking their minds will get them into trouble (a problem in and of itself), so having an independent neutral party that promises confidentiality will help allay these fears;

**Ask specific questions about the nature of the employee experience. Our surveys cover a wide range of topics, from psychological safety to employee voice and silence to workplace incivility. We have identified these topics over the last twenty years of listening to local government employees talk about their workplaces. Specific information about the employee experience helps local governments pinpoint and treat workplace issues;

**Get senior managers on board. Communicate early that the survey is not a report card; rather, it is an opportunity for senior managers to make their workplaces more effective, boost morale, and increase productivity in the process;

**Act on the survey results. Prioritize the two or three issues you will address in the upcoming year. And after you do, let employees know how you responded to their input. Better yet, involve employees in identifying solutions. The Local Government Workplaces Initiative does “deep-dive” sessions with small groups of employees to interpret survey results and identify potential solutions. This strategy gives employees a sense of ownership (but only if managers act on results).

Recruitment and retention challenges will get wax and wane, but the benefits of healthy workplace climates will remain. Take this opportunity to improve your workplaces by listening to how your employees see their workplaces. Doing so will build trust, boost morale, and bolster your organization’s effectiveness. It’s a win-win for your employees, your organization, and the community members you serve.

Article by: Leisha DeHart-Davis, Vice President, GovHR USA

Leisha DeHart-Davis is a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Government. She directs the UNC Local Government Workplaces Initiative, whose mission is to help local governments listen to their employees. She is a member of the National Academy of Public Administration.