What Tennessee Can Learn About Asking Employees to Reapply for Their Jobs

Tennessee is asking its 1,600 IT employees to reapply for their jobs. The state may learn from Colorado and Hillsborough County, Fla., which have both overhauled their workforces in this way.
June 12, 2013

Tennessee's 1,600 IT employees are about to undergo a major reclassification that will open up all of their jobs to competitive bid and push them to reapply for the new positions. The overhaul (which Governing wrote about last month) aims to ensure that the state has the IT knowledge and resources it needs today and in the future as technology continues to change.

Tennessee isn’t the first to overhaul its workforce in such a way. Two somewhat recent examples include Colorado, where Gov. John Hickenlooper asked those in the highest-level, non-appointed executive positions to reapply at the expiration of their contracts in 2011; and Hillsborough County, Fla., which whittled 106 financial and support jobs down to 90 reclassified positions.

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To learn more about how Colorado and Hillsborough County fared (and lend some insight to what Tennessee might expect) I spoke with Sabrina D’Agosta, the director of policy and communications for the Colorado Department of Personnel and Administration, and Sharon D. Subadan, the deputy county administrator for public safety and community services in Hillsborough County. Their responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.

The Colorado Experience as Told by Sabrina D’Agosta

Which employees were asked to reapply?

We went through this process for our Senior Executive Service (SES) -- it’s the highest-level executive positions that aren’t appointed by the governor.

In Colorado, we have one of the most restrictive state personnel systems; and most of the language is in our constitution, so it’s very difficult for us to change anything in it.

Our SES was established by constitution. There are 125 positions allowed, but we’ve never filled all of them. They typically include people who would be on the executive management team like deputy directors, CFOs, COOs. It’s really the people who report directly to the executive directors of each of the agencies. These employees aren’t classified; the constitution requires they have an annual contract that sets their pay and the term of their employment.

Why were SES employees in particular asked to reapply?

When Gov. Hickenlooper came to office, his cabinet decided that one of their primary goals was to recruit, retain and reward top talent for the state workforce and build public confidence in good government.

Typically, when SES employees’ contract is up, it’s renewed if they’re doing a good job. But the cabinet didn’t just want to auto-renew all of the SES, so they reopened all of those positions, giving them the opportunity to bring in people who fit with the new administration’s goals.

How many employees reapplied?

There were 81 SES positions at the time. After the hiring process was complete, new hires from outside of government made up 19 of the total; there was one that was a transfer from another agency who was already in an SES position; there were seven promotions from within the same agency; 43 were retained; and as of July 2011, 11 positions were vacant. It’s possible that those positions had previously been vacant. In total, 13 incumbents were not retained in their current positions or another position.

We were very clear from the outset that current SES staff were encouraged to apply. We didn’t want them to feel like they were being forced out, but they weren’t given any preference. The advantage they had was they really knew a lot about what was needed, how the positions worked, what the goals and needs were.

What was the response from employees?

That varies, obviously. I’m sure there were some who were surprised, and I’m sure it was rattling to feel like you didn’t have the same job security. But I think people respected that we needed to make sure we had the right people in the right positions. And as SES, because they were an annual contract anyway, I think most of them understood that their contract couldn’t just be renewed.

Were there any setbacks?

It definitely created a workload issue for our HR offices throughout the state that they were all working on this at the same time. That wasn’t really a setback, though; it just created a lot of work.

How long did the process take?

From the time employees were notified that their contracts would not be auto-renewed to the new start date, the whole process took three months.

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We tried to make quick decisions and not keep people hanging while we tried to figure out if they’d be retained or not. We gave all incumbents months notice and allowed them to stay until the new employees came in. We probably at least reduced any gap in employment that way.

Was the project successful?

From the state-personnel perspective, this was very successful. I think it says a lot that we were able to retain 53 percent and another 10 percent went to another role. We had some great people that were a better fit in a different role or department. At the same time, we were able to bring in a lot of new people from outside state employment.

Hillsborough County Reclassification as Told by Sharon D. Subadan

What was the situation heading into a reclassification?

Close to about three years ago, the county administrator reorganized the county and created two large operational teams: Public Safety and Community Services, which has 10 departments and a total of 18 functional areas. It became apparent to me that the only way to lead such a large group would be to have a combined fiscal and supportive services body. Prior to this organizational structure, every department and sometimes every division had their own fiscal and support services body.

We spent a lot of time looking at the entire group, and what I learned and found was that we needed different functions and skill sets than what existed. The county has reduced staff 25 percent from where we were six years ago, but we hasn’t reduced our core service components. To be able to continue to deliver service, we had to completely reform the way that we delivered those services by modernizing processes to be more efficient and effective.

How was the reorganization started?

We began with the end in mind: to create a department necessary to support all 18 of these functional areas. It became clear that we weren’t leveraging our skill set across the county, so we created positions to work across teams to leverage expertise. When we created these new job descriptions, we went through a complete recruitment process. We sent out spreadsheets and asked for the percentage of a position dedicated to various tasks like accounts payable and reporting. The directors would fill this out. We also pulled job content questionnaires to learn more about the duties associated with specific positions.

We started with 106 FTEs, but there were actually more people doing these [fiscal and support] functions. If someone was able to demonstrate that 51 percent of their duties were department-specific, we left them out of the equation. Of those, we created 90 positions that were subsequently filled.

We only had maybe three months to complete the process. In retrospect, it would have been nice to have longer, but in some ways, it was good to move things along quickly.

How many employees were asked to reapply?

It wasn’t people reapplying for jobs because their jobs were essentially being eliminated. We did an open, competitive recruitment process for the new department. Just about all reapplied, but many we found either didn’t have the skill set or the expertise to perform in the new jobs, so they may have been more qualified for a different job. Others chose to retire or seek jobs elsewhere.

There was a voluntary separation incentive program offered before the new department creation -- basically a buyout for tenured people -- and several took advantage of it. We encouraged remaining employees to apply for any and all positions they were qualified for.

How many employees were hired? How many were not retained?

We attracted a really good applicant pool. We drew talent from all over and outside of our area. About 25 percent of the people hired were external candidates and 75 percent were internal, but not all of those were in one of my departments. We had individuals working in other county areas that saw this as a great opportunity.

Some employees have been laid off as a result. That was unfortunate, but we did go out of our way to see how we could place employees into other positions. The county has a reduction-in-force (RIF) system, so for the people who did not get hired, there were openings that they could have bumped into in a current classification or similar classification in another department.

Ultimately, it was a small number, maybe less than five, people that were completely laid off. And because of the voluntary separation, a lot of people did that and they took themselves out of the equation.

What was essential to a successful transition?

A communications plan is critical. We were careful to meet with our employees and inform our board of the direction we were taking. Our updates were very specific on what interviews would be conducted; we encouraged employees to apply, worked closely with civil service, helped people look for jobs elsewhere, and announced hiring decisions. We did our best to minimize fear and and to be as open and honest as we could be with our employees at every step of the way. We tried to manage the process from an employee perspective. We sent out weekly correspondence to try our best to stop rumors.

How did employees react?

It’s kind of like medicine -- it’s necessary, but not really liked. At the end of the day, I think there’s good acceptance for the outcome.

What benefit has the county realized thus far?

It’s been almost two years and we have really made progress. We were told by the consultant it would be five years before we saw progress, but we have seen great progress already and our departments have been working together. Not including the cost savings because of the efficiencies, our initial savings were half a million dollars annually, but the bigger savings are in the ongoing improvement in the way we do business and we haven’t realized that in full yet. Because departments are focused on their missions and no back-office operations, they are able to deliver higher quality service. We completely reinvented the government within our team and really created a whole new concept of delivering fiscal and support services that attracted some really excellent talent for the county.

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