Top 10 Predictors of Federal Employee Job Satisfaction

Job Satisfaction

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part article series that analyzes U.S. Office of Personnel Management's 2019 and 2021 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, respectively. The author did not consider using 2020 data for this series because there was a great deal of confusion and flux in the federal government when COVID-19 started. The author contends that 2019 data is much more stable and reliable than 2020. In the following analysis and regression, the author uses the actual response data set, not the summary information that is linked. A version of this article was originally published on LinkedIn. Stay tuned for a 2021 OPM FEVS analysis in October.

The U.S. federal government boasts approximately 2.1 million employees worldwide, according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s FedScope database. In fact, it has long been touted as the largest employer in the country, closely followed by Walmart, per most accounts.

As federal human capital agencies together work on part of the Biden-Harris President’s Management Agenda, organizations such as OPM, U.S. Office of Management and Budget, and the Chief Human Capital Officers Council collaborate on workforce hiring reforms. Still, little has been done to address and nurture the motivations of the millions of federal employees who work to maintain our national security and public safety.

After all, if prompt, decisive action is not taken to address federal employees’ motivators, the integrity of our government and its ability to retain key talent will soon be obsolete. As the U.S. federal workforce becomes older, on average, and the federal government struggles to attract, develop and retain top talent during what appears to be a countrywide employment resignation, many have started to ask the question: What exactly do federal employees want?

To help answer the question of what motivates the federal employee workforce, the following is a list of the top 10 predictors of federal employee job satisfaction, in order of importance, based on a quantitative analysis of a random sample of responses to OPM’s 2019 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (See Figure 1).

Figure 1: Top 10 Predictors of Federal Employee Job Satisfaction


My work gives me a feeling of personal accomplishment.


I like the kind of work I do.


How satisfied are you with your involvement in decisions that affect your work?


My supervisor supports my need to balance work and other life issues.


How satisfied are you with your opportunity to get a better job in your organization?


My talents are used well in the workplace.


How satisfied are you with the policies and practices of your senior leaders?


Considering everything, how satisfied are you with
your pay?


Employees have a feeling of personal empowerment with respect to work processes.


How satisfied are you with the recognition you receive for doing a good job?

1. Personal Accomplishment

Personal accomplishment is the No. 1 predictor of job satisfaction. Federal employees, like all of us, value feeling good about what they do—organizations and managers should emphasize how the civil servant’s work is valued, valuable and honorable. For most organizations, this requires little effort—public service motivation is a tremendous indicator of not only likelihood to serve in government, but also success and sense of accomplishment. The following predictors will help organizations ensure they’re getting the most out of already dedicated and talented employees.

2. Liking What One Does

Like personal accomplishment, liking the work one does is a significant predictor of job satisfaction. What does that mean for federal managers? It means, pay attention. If an employee doesn’t particularly like their work, don’t ignore it. Find out how to make the job more engaging for your employees by having open lines of communication. If possible, adjust tasks or responsibilities to accommodate employee preferences. Of course, that doesn’t mean the work will always be fun, but as Mark Twain once posited, “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Just make sure there’s a fit between the federal employee and the work. And remember, it’s not just a job in federal employment, it’s a calling.

3. Involvement in Decisions That Affect Work

This is directly out of the Leadership 101 playbook. “Buy-in” demonstrates that you trust your employees and value their input. According to a 2018 Forbes article, “How to Encourage Employee Involvement in Decision Making,” there are many ways to effectively include employee participation and support, including suggestion boxes, surveys, and influential committees that report directly to senior leaders. After all, employees have the intimate knowledge of the organization’s operational details and will be more than happy to share their perspectives, if given an open and honest opportunity.

4. Work-Life Balance

Now, more so than ever, employees of all ages understand the value of balancing work with life and are exhibiting a low threshold for organizations that fail to understand and deliver on a common-sense equilibrium. It was long thought that the five generations currently occupying the workplace contributed to starkly different work-life value systems. However, common values have emerged across generations in the workplace: to varying degrees among generations, work-life balance has appeared as a critical factor in retaining talent, while alternate (or flexible) work schedules and remote work (or telework) are important ways to achieve better balance for many employees, regardless of generation.

5. Opportunities for Promotion

Many federal employees are perfectly happy in their current position, and some would not mind staying in one key job for a lifetime. However, ambitious federal employees want to know that there are real, competitive opportunities to advance in the organization—and it shows in the impact to civil servants’ job satisfaction. Organizations that recruit, access, develop, and retain relevant talent have a distinct advantage in employee career development by preparing for and providing opportunities for promotion.

6. Well-Used Talents

Nothing is more frustrating than underemployment in a job beneath an employee’s capabilities and potential. Not surprisingly, employees who are mentally unchallenged are not as satisfied with their work as they could be. Talents should be assessed against organizational strategic goals, then key positions filled with high- potential, high-performing employees. Offering opportunities to grow and stretch employees’ capabilities could be as simple as presenting broadening or developmental assignments, mentorship programs, or targeted training and educational opportunities.

7. Organizational Policies and Practices

Admittedly, this predictor is a bit elusive and sometimes beyond an organization’s or agency’s span of control. But there are two critical ways to identify and revise antiquated and otherwise unhelpful organizational practices, policies and procedures: 1. Ask. To start, have an open-door policy, hold town halls and listening sessions, and/or establish a shared digital space for safely sharing ideas. 2. Do something about it. If it’s in your span of control, act. If the decision to act is outside of your sphere, enlist the help of someone who can do something.

8. Pay

Federal employees still make only three-quarters of private sector pay, according to a 2020 Federal Times article. Quite often, federal managers feel their hands are tied with respect to pay for performance. But the truth is, there are a variety of tools available to organizations to reward top talent. Recruitment incentives, cash awards and bonuses, time-off awards, and quality step increases are just a few of the options on the table. How and how often your organization employs these tools says a lot about its culture and regard for its employees. This is a great opportunity to reiterate that this list is in order of magnitude, and the previous seven predictors are effectively free. Take some time to understand your unique workforce culture and its needs, then begin implementing from the top of this list and from the top of the organization. Pay, of course, should be considered, but keep it in perspective.

9. Work Process Empowerment

Work process empowerment is closely related to buy-in (No. 3 on this list), with one very important distinction: Involvement details the level of employee contribution from the bottom up, while empowerment includes the cascading latitude to make important decisions from the top down. Still, in 2017, researchers at the University of Birmingham Business School found that despite the overwhelmingly positive effects on well-being and job satisfaction, “managers remain unwilling to offer employees greater level of autonomy.”  Federal employers should ensure the greatest degree of autonomy to employees to foster overall fulfillment and satisfaction.

10. Recognition

This brings us to the last and, frankly, least impactful of the list of top 10 motivators for federal workers. This may fly in the face of conventional wisdom, and your anecdotal mileage may vary, but the data doesn’t lie. Despite being the last on this list, it’s still in the top 10 predictors (and first on the list for some federal employees) of job satisfaction! From public recognition to a sincere note of appreciation, or any number of formal or informal awards, the good news is that there are infinite ways to simply say “thank you” for everything federal employees do to serve this great nation and its people.

Now What?

Our nation depends on retaining the most talented employees this country has to offer. HR professionals should consider using these top motivators for federal workers with intention and as a referendum on how your agency, organization and workplace fulfill the intrinsic and extrinsic needs most important to the people. Employ the list as a baseline to evaluate your organizational efforts and employees’ satisfaction with organizational performance, then make necessary changes in the organization, and don’t forget to assess and follow up with your federal employees to measure effectiveness—our national security and public safety depend on it.

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