The revolving door

“It’s not a secret on Capitol Hill that some bosses are easier to work for than others.”

So says Lee Drutman, a senior fellow with the Sunlight Foundation and the lead researcher on a new study examining staff turnover in the House from 2009 to 2011.

Drutman and his colleagues found big discrepancies in staff retention rates in members’ offices, ranging from 93 percent to 19 percent. Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) had the highest staff retention rate, Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio) the lowest.

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“There are some members who seem to do an incredibly good job of holding onto staff and seem to be quite beloved by their staff,” Drutman told The Hill.

But there’s also the other end of the spectrum.

“It’s 435 small businesses up here. You get different atmospheres and management techniques,” said one senior staffer who preferred to remain anonymous.

“We know where the bad places are to work,” the staffer said. “It always starts at the top. It starts with the member, filters through the chief [of staff], and there’s a lot of turnover in these offices because it’s a hard place to be.”

According to Bradford Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, there are several reasons why a congressional office might suffer from chronic retention problems.

One is working under a member who is very member-centric, and not district- or staff-centric, said Fitch.

“The idea is it’s all about them and the purpose of the staff is to serve the member rather than serve the mission,” he said.

Lanier Avant, chief of staff for Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and staff director for the Committee on Homeland Security, has witnessed first-hand the value of working for a mission-centric member.

We “reinforce the good work of public service,” he said. We “try to make life better for a whole group of other people. That’s the kind of mindset we try to impress upon staff.”

With a nearly 90 percent staff retention rate, much of the office’s success has to do with its hiring strategy, said Avant, who has been with Thompson since 1996.

“We believe that the office is best served by having folks work in it who have a vested interest in the work we do,” he said, noting that the office hires all its staff from Thompson’s home state. “You want to have people who have a vested interest in the outcome, folks who believe in the work.”

But even if the lawmaker is a pleasure to work for, the chief of staff can present a problem when it comes to staff attrition. If employees feel they are not supported in their work and professional development, they might vote with their feet.

Derek Harley, Rep. Wally Herger’s (R-Calif.) chief of staff, sees the value in cultivating a team environment in his office.

It’s “making people feel like they can be challenged and feel like they’re part of something bigger,” Harley said. Herger’s office has one of the highest staff retention rates, at nearly 93 percent. “I think that fosters such a great environment for success.”

But even if employees remain challenged and focused on the mission in a team environment, the lack of opportunities to move up the professional ladder could pose a problem, Fitch said.

“If the [legislative director] isn’t going anywhere, and you want to be an LD, you really have to shop next door,” he said.

That’s one issue that Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) makes sure to address in his office. He scored a 90 percent staff retention rate, losing just two staffers out of 20 in the two-year period studied.

“That is a problem when the office doesn’t have great turnover,” he said. “That does cause some consternation in the D.C. staff.”

While Johnson can’t necessarily promote employees under those circumstances, he makes sure to support their desire for career advancement.

“We give people more responsibility despite what their title might be. We give them a chance to kind of step into a greater role while handling what is assigned to them,” he said. “They are also encouraged to think about legislative issues and to research and bring ideas to the table.”

A member’s support for his or her staff’s careers can also do the opposite — leading to a lower retention rate because the lawmaker is helping employees get higher-level jobs with other employers. Still, that can widen a lawmaker’s sphere of influence, if he or she has former staffers in various jobs around the Capitol.

As for the House offices posting low retention rates, some staffers are quick to point out that it could simply be bad luck — rather than poor choices — that are responsible.

At 26 percent, Rep. John Fleming’s (R-La.) office posted the second lowest staff retention rates in the Sunlight Foundation study, holding on to just four staffers out of 15. Fleming’s communications director, Doug Sachtleben, said his office had been hit by hardships, including the death of its chief of staff, which influenced its numbers.

The office also had two employees leave due to pregnancies, and the office operated under a tight timeframe in 2009 when Fleming was a freshman representative.

“We had a late start and had to ramp up fast in terms of hiring,” Sachtleben said. “The numbers don’t always tell the whole story. People are going to have a perception that there’s something [negative] in the office, when in reality there’s all these other factors that easily explain the number.

“That’s the downside of people just seeing the numbers, and the reality is the opposite … It’s a good office, good staff that enjoys being together,” he said.

While there are potential lessons to be learned from the numbers at both the top and bottom of the Sunlight Foundation study, the greatest information might instead be gleaned from the middle, Fitch said. The average turnover rate across all member offices during the study’s two-year period — as far back as the House has publicly released disbursement data — was in the 60 percent range, he said.

“That means that every two years, one out of three of your staff members are going to be leaving,” Fitch added. “That puts a burden on the managers for hiring.”

That, according to Drutman, can have a big impact on member effectiveness.

“Any manager would tell you if you’re constantly having to replace people, it’s going to undermine organizational productivity,” he said. “It’s very hard to effectively run a congressional office if you constantly have to find new people and retrain them.”

That, in turn, is something constituents should take into consideration come voting time.

“If you have an office with a high turnover rate, it’s a lot harder for that member to be an effective legislator, and it could potentially make constituent service more difficult,” Drutman said.

“Just as if you were a shareholder, you wouldn’t want to invest in a company where people are constantly being replaced and management can’t hold onto anybody,” he said. “You might not want to elect a representative who can’t keep people and can’t be an effective legislator.”