Gone are the days when concern over public-sector workforce issues were almost entirely the province of human resources departments. Increasingly, state government agencies are aware that their most important assets go home at the end of the day, and in order to maintain those assets, they must pay attention to the issues they care about.

For millennials, it may not be what you expect.

"I really think we’re making too much of the generational differences," says Joyce Oreskovich, the current president of the National Association of State Personnel Executives (NASPE) and director of the Bureau of Human Resources in Maine.

She's worked in HR for years and is full of advice for state and local governments trying to attract and retain the best and the brightest. Governing spoke with her to get some of it.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the role of HR professionals in recent years?

We are reinventing ourselves. Most of what we’ve been doing in HR up until now has been transactional, but now we’re automating transactions and moving toward more talent management and development.

Has that affected the way managers, agency directors or other government leaders see HR professionals?

We are seeing a gradual shift. When people see HR coming, they are inclined to think they’re in trouble. We have to turn that around so instead of seeing us and saying ‘uh-oh’, they’ll say ‘oh good, we have someone to help us problem-solve.’ There are a lot of ways we can help managers in their efforts to manage performance. 

What’s the biggest mistake you see managers make?

It’s when they avoid the difficult conversations with underperformers and fail to recognize good work. It’s too easy to not manage people. If a job isn’t getting done, it’s too easy to say, ‘I’ll do it myself,’ or 'I’ll give it to the good employee in the next cubicle.'

It’s demoralizing for the good people to watch the bad people not be dealt with. You have to manage poor performance. People want to do a good job. They don’t come to work thinking, ‘What can I do to screw up today?’

What qualities make a good manager?

I would say clear communication of what you expect and being a good listener, and taking time to get to know your employees and understanding them as human beings.

What makes a bad manager?

Micromanaging. Everybody’s first complaint is that their boss micromanages them and doesn’t let them think for themselves, so they stop caring or stop trying.

My best boss let me know what I had to accomplish and didn’t care where I did it, or when I did it or how I did it. I really believe good managers encourage people to think for themselves and then are there to help.

My son took a temporary government job and he was so excited about it. But he was bored stiff after three months. It really killed me. He was sitting in a cubicle and when he had ideas, he saw people rolling their eyes. They didn’t encourage him to participate. They just wanted him warming the seat.

Do you think that different workplace generations need different kinds of support?

We have found that millennials do like feedback, and if they don’t get it, they’re out of here. But I really think we’re making too much of the generational differences. They’re getting sick and tired of hearing how different they are.

The biggest change in the workforce is that we are staying in it longer, so we’ve added an older generation that wasn’t there before.