Editor's Note: State Workers Don't Fit Negative Stereotypes

Jun 1, 2013

Dana Heupel
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
I ran into a friend at a conference recently, a former journalist whom I greatly respect. “You know,” he said to me, “you guys need to do something on how the state treats its employees — what that does to morale, productivity, that sort of thing.”

He’s right, although we have dealt with that subject several times, among the most recent being an essay by Robert Bruno in the September 2012 Illinois Issues. But the idea bears further examination.

When I first came to Springfield more than 20 years ago, I repeated the same state worker jokes as everyone else who, well, wasn’t a state worker. You know: Q. How does a broken shotgun resemble a government worker? A. It doesn’t work and you can’t fire it. Stuff like that. There’s a whole genre of humor that relies on the assumptions that government workers are lazy, overpaid, stupid, incompetent, corrupt and bleeding taxpayers to death. It’s a long tradition that includes laugh luminaries from Mark Twain and Will Rogers to current late night talk show hosts.

But the longer I lived in the state capital, the more state workers I came to know, especially during my 10-year stint in the Capitol press room. I discovered that like most negative stereotypes, this one’s not true. Sure, there are a few slackers in state government, just as there are in any large employment pool. But the great majority of state employees work very hard under increasingly difficult circumstances. Most are good at their jobs, and their experience and expertise are what keeps state government’s motor running despite the continuous changes in drivers and directions.

So I no longer dis state workers. I just wish more editorial writers, politicians and website commenters had reached the same conclusion. Instead, they continue to bash away at public employees, either implicitly or explicitly blaming them for the state’s financial troubles. They use phrases like “stunningly generous pension benefits” (governor candidate Bruce Rauner) or “Cadillac” health insurance plans (Illinois Policy Institute). And some of the online commentators are so vicious that I wouldn’t consider repeating their derisions here.

Morale is difficult to judge, and I’m not sure that a “Happy! Happy!” workplace is necessarily the most productive, anyway. But I do know that state workers — and teachers and university employees, who are lumped in with state government personnel in recent discussions — have noticed that their “employers” (meaning politicians and taxpayers) don’t seem to be, how shall we say … terribly encouraging. That’s evident during conversations with many of them, and it evokes the range of emotions one might expect, from belligerence to indifference to an attitude of defeat.

Let me interject my usual disclosure here: I am paid by a public university and therefore fall into the above class. But my supervisors treat me well, and although I shake my head at some of the remarks by politicians and Web commenters, I’m generally happy with my lot in my work life.

I can’t say the same, though, for many of the state employees, teachers and university staff I come across daily in Springfield. They often feel besieged, betrayed and thrown under the bus by politicians and the public. They feel characterized as overpaid and underworked, and whipsawed by the constant clamor over pensions, cost-of-living adjustments, health insurance and attempts to improve the educational system. Yet most remain dedicated to doing their jobs as well as they can, turning a deaf ear to the negative cacophony and concentrating on the task at hand.

Because I’ve bounced around some in my career, I’ve been fortunate to go through management and leadership training programs at three large newspaper corporations, and I’ve picked up a little wisdom of my own in 35 years as a front-line supervisor. Much of what I’ve learned can be whittled down to two axioms: Treat employees with respect; and praise them in public and criticize them in private.

I also believe that ruthlessly driving employees to exhaustion can get you through a crisis, but it doesn’t work in the long run — they will burn out, and you’ve replaced one management problem with another one. From my vantage point in a small city filled with government employees, teachers and university staff, I worry that’s beginning to happen through a seemingly never-ending barrage of staffing and budget cuts, accompanied by constant verbal assaults from politicians, the press and the public. If you think waits are too long now to renew a driver’s license or obtain a FOID card, just wait and see what happens if current conditions continue.

“Employees who believe that management is concerned about them as a whole person — not just an employee — are more productive, more satisfied, more fulfilled,” goes an oft-repeated quote by former Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy. “Satisfied employees mean satisfied customers, which leads to profitability.”

But while Mulcahy is undoubtedly referring to the whole spectrum of management, most state employees, teachers and university staff don’t feel disrespected by their supervisors, principals or deans, many of whom share the same frustrations. It is the state’s leaders whose barbs, through words or actions, sting the most.

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things,” pioneering management consultant Peter Drucker said in drawing a distinction between the two functions in an organization.

But unfortunately, at least in Illinois, political pandering by our leaders trumps productive and sound leadership practices nearly every time.

***

We say goodbye this month to the three students from the University of Illinois Springfield who have helped us keep the magazine in motion this year: sophomore Kerry Portillo-Lopez, graduate research assistant Eliot Clay and Public Affairs Reporting intern Meredith Colias. Kerry and Eliot expect to return to school in the fall, and we hope they will consider coming back to work for us again. Meredith just earned her master’s degree and sets off toward new horizons. Kerry, Eliot and Meredith, we wish you all a great summer, and we thank you for all the help you’ve given us. You guys rock! 

Illinois Issues, June 2013