Why Federal Government Employees Are Unhappy

Job Satisfaction Just Keeps Going Down

Government employees protests sequester-driven furloughs. Win McNamee/Getty Images

January 2, 2014

Federal government employees get great benefits and are at long last getting a small cost-of-living raise. So why are they so much unhappier in their jobs than private-sector workers?

How much unhappier are they? According to the 2013 edition of the annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report, the average job satisfaction and commitment level rating of the more than 2 million federal government workers fell for the third straight year, reaching a grim record 13 points below that of private-sector employees.

Government-wide, the federal employee job satisfaction and commitment level tumbled more than 3 points from 2012 to a score of 57.8 on a scale of 0 to 100. In contrast, private-sector employee satisfaction improved by 0.7 points in 2013 to a score of 70.7, according to a similar report produced by the Hay Group.

A Grim Trend is Developing

Down, down, down it goes. The 57.8 rating represented the lowest overall Best Places to Work score since the rankings were first launched in 2003, and follows a 3.2-point drop in 2012 and a 1-point decline in 2011.

Among the various federal agencies, overall employee satisfaction and commitment ratings fell in 75.4% in 2013, compared with only 66% in 2012.

Perhaps of greatest concern, the report shows that the job satisfaction rating of the average government worker has now dropped 13 points below that of the average private-sector employee.

Just as in the private sector, employee job satisfaction goes a long way toward determining the productivity and effectiveness of the government.

And Talk About Job Security

Another great thing about working for the federal government is that it is almost impossible to get fired.

According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), out of the over 2.1 million working for the federal government, only about 4,000 or less than 0.2% of them were fired during 2013.

Of the few fired, only about 3,500 were let go due to poor performance or conduct.

In its report to Congress, the GAO stated, “The time and resource commitment needed to remove a poor performing permanent employee can be substantial.”

So is it the Money? Yes, But Just Partially

While federal employee job satisfaction decreased in all 10 workplace categories examined in the Best Places to Work survey, the biggest decline in 2013 came in the area of pay. Government-wide, employee satisfaction with pay fell 4.7 points in 2013, contributing to a decline of 12.7 points since 2010.

Make no mistake; the years following the great recession have been no day at the beach for government employees, who have faced a three-year pay freeze, sequestration-driven furloughs, hiring slowdowns and across-the-board cuts in their agencies’ annual budgets.

The results of the 2013 Best Places to Work survey may have been even worse except for the fact that the Office of Personnel Management survey used the basis of analysis was taken months before the 16-day government shutdown in October 2013, so it does not reflect the almost certainly negative employee views of the event.

On Pay at Least, the Government Begs to Differ

However, the government contends that despite these recent financial setbacks, its employees are still better off overall than private-sector workers.

For example, in a 2012 report, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that federal employee benefits are on average 46% better than those of employees in the private sector, where benefits are being cut more often than increased.

In addition, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) -- government’s human resources department – noted that the three-year pay freeze did not prevent federal employees who were eligible for them from getting performance-based promotions or automatic, tenure-based “step” increases.

As a result of these raises, the OPM reported that the average annual salary of federal employees had actually increased by almost $1,800 from $76,701 in 2010 to $78,467 in 2012.

And then, there’s the report, Comparing Wages in the Federal Government and the Private Sector: 2012, from the independent Congressional Budget Office, showing that in 2012 the average wage for federal employees overall was about $32 per hour, about 2% higher than the average wage for private-sector workers with similar educational backgrounds.

But It’s Not All About the Money

Anybody who has ever worked for anybody else knows that job satisfaction depends on much more than pay and benefits. Do you like the job? Is your boss a good leader?  Is your good work appreciated and are you recognized for it? Are you given the resources you need to do a good job? Are you informed of the company’s policies and goals?

It is in these non-pay related areas where government employees are constantly finding less satisfaction, according to the latest Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report.

Right behind pay in falling employee satisfaction, according to the report, was training and job development opportunities, which fell 3.2 points, followed by rewards and advancement, which dropped by 2.2 points from 2012.

The greatest difference between government and private-sector employees came in the area of job recognition. While 64% of private-sector employees were satisfied with the recognition they got for good work, only 43% of federal government workers got the same warm and fuzzy feeling from their managers.

Satisfaction of government employees also fell further behind private-sector workers in the categories of coworker cooperation and how effectively management kept them informed.

What about leadership? On a scale of 0 to 100, government employees gave leadership provided by managers to supervisors an average satisfaction rating of only 51.8. 

But, Do You Like the Work?

Notably, when asked the simple, basic question, “Do you like the kind of work you do?” 81.2% of government workers replied “yes,” compared to only 75% of private-sector employees.