The State Worker

Managers struggle to thank California state employees

Two surveys reveal a deep cultural flaw in California’s state government.

The first employee engagement survey went to 5,000 state employees last summer. It showed a strong majority of respondents agreed with the statement, “I believe my work makes a difference in the lives of Californians.” But they largely disagreed with the statement, “I receive recognition for doing good work.”

Then earlier this month, midway through a May 3 webinar encouraging managers to formally and informally reward their employees for good work, the roughly 100 participants responded to this question: “Does your agency or department have an employee recognition program?” More that half, 51 percent, said either “no” or that they didn’t know.

Marybel Batjer, head of the Government Operations Agency and the state’s reformer-in-chief, saw the webinar poll numbers. She wasn’t happy.

“I’d say we have improvement to do,” Batjer said with an uncomfortable chuckle during the recorded online session. “That’s sort of below the level I would want to see ...”

It was an unvarnished moment from a high-level government official acknowledging that, one, Sacramento has a morale problem and, two, there’s a long way to go to fix it.

Sure, more money would help. But studies show that when employees in either the public sector or the private sector sense sincere appreciation for the work they perform, it triggers a chain reaction of good vibes. Workplace morale rises. Employees become more invested and satisfied with their work. Productivity grows. Turnover declines. Expertise flourishes. Customer service improves.

Over the years, the state and individual departments have recognized employees for heroism, innovation, outstanding public service, exceptional commitment to the job, superior accomplishments and more.

Last year, for example, departments submitted about 400 ideas to a program that awards up to $50,000 for cost-saving innovations. Fifteen state employees received the Governor’s Medal of Valor for heroism. The Department of Motor Vehicles recognizes employees for superior service to taxpayers, commitment to assisting people with disabilities, exceptional supervisory skills and more.

And then there are the smaller, less formal, more personal moments, that don’t take a lot of money or planning. It’s saying “thanks” when someone exceeds expectations. It’s a warm, specific, eye-to-eye compliment given to someone for tackling a tough project. It’s dipping into your own wallet for bagels after a win that only your team knows about.

At the Franchise Tax Board, for example, managers challenge one another to hand out a candy bar and a compliment to an employee, then come back and report on what happened, said Paul Ogden, director of the FTB’s Business and Human Resources Bureau.

“We think it’s so hard,” Ogden said. “But you don’t have to have a big event. You can do simple things.”

The state is talking about surveying employees again next year. Will it show morale has improved?