The NCSL Blog


By Kae Warnock and Brenda Erickson

It's not enough to hire the right people for your staff. Successful organizations, including legislatures, have to nurture and retain their best people.

Greg Fugate, performance audit manager, Colorado auditor's officeA legislative staff session at NCSL’s 2018 Legislative Summit discussed the many successes and challenges of mentoring, motivating and maintaining legislative staff.

Greg Fugate, performance audit manager with the Colorado Office of the State Auditor, set the stage by asking the audience to think about what it means to each of us to mentor, motivate and maintain staff. These are distinct but inherently interrelated concepts. No matter where we are in the organization, or how long we’ve been there:

  • If we are MENTORED well, doesn’t this help improve our MOTIVATION?
  • If we are MOTIVATED in our work, then aren’t we more likely to stick around?
  • If we are RETAINED and MOTIVATED, then aren’t we more likely to be effective MENTORS to others in the organization?

A 2018 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found employee retention and turnover are top human resource challenges. State legislatures face similar retention issues and they often cannot compete with the private sector when it comes to salaries.

So, what does it take to get people to stay with a state legislature and remain engaged? Below is a summary of key points and ideas discussed at this session.

Hire the Right Person

Panelists and participants agreed it is important to be honest with prospective hires about the position and the organization. It’s important to understand a candidate’s aspirations, what they think of the available job and if the person could be a good fit in your organization.

Working in a legislature is a unique job. It is critical to hire for strengths and build on what is great about your new employee. It can be difficult to train missing talents into the person later.

The Texas Legislative Council involves multiple employees in the hiring process to get different perspectives on candidates. People who participate in the selection process may be more committed to helping the new employee succeed.  

Introduce potential hires to different types of workplace situations and see how they mesh with your other employees. This gives you an opportunity to see how the candidate interacts with other employees, and it allows key stakeholders the opportunity to give feedback on the candidate.

Recognize Good Work

Recognizing an employee’s accomplishments is a low/no cost way to increase retention. According to the SHRM survey, two-thirds of employers find employee recognition programs help retain good staff. Sheron Violini, with the California Senate Rules Committee, told participants her office strives to let staff know how much others (especially their peers) appreciate the work they do. Basing one of their recognition programs on the No. 1 New York Times best-seller, “How Full is Your Bucket?,” Senate Rules staff have toy buckets on their desks where colleagues can leave notes congratulating one another on successes, thanking them for help or celebrating the completion of projects.  

Mentor Others

In 2016, Deloitte conducted a survey on what employers need to do to get millennials to stay in a job. According to the study, mentor programs have a positive impact on employee retention. Mark Kuster of the Texas Legislative Council told participants new hires in his office have both a mentor and a review team to provide constant feedback on their work.

The California Senate Rules Committee uses formal and informal mentoring, as well as reverse mentorships, to allow new employees to share their knowledge with others. When audience members were asked about programs they valued or would like to see in their legislature, mentoring came up frequently.

Master New Skills

Legislative staff value the opportunity to learn something new and advance their abilities. Andrea Chiapella told participants the Oregon Legislature holds a biennial professional development day and offers other regular training. Audience members noted onboarding, cross training and bringing in external speakers add to staff professional development.

Don’t Forget the Fun

In addition to professional development activities, audience members suggested birthday parties, getting together for coffee, wellness programs, patio lunch parties, socializing after work and other informal gatherings to help teams work better together and build a strong culture.

Other Recommendations

Legislative employees also value opportunities to have flexible schedules, telecommute, participate in office decision-making and engage in good communication. These options help boost morale and strengthen working relationships.

Kae Warnock and Brenda Erickson cover legislative management issues in NCSL’s Legislative Staff Services Program and serve as liaisons to three of the nine professional staff associations (RELACS, NLPES, NLSSA).

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.