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Justice, Fairness, Inclusion, and Performance.

Meet our Fellows: Robert Lavigna

Fellow Spotlight

By: Robert Lavigna

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Robert Lavigna ('08) - Senior Fellow at UKG

1. Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in human resources & talent acquisition/retention?

Government plays a critical role in the American economy and American society. Across our nation, more than 20,000,000 dedicated people serve in government, including in public schools and universities. These public servants do their jobs quietly and effectively, including laboring on the front lines in the battle against the coronavirus.

However, for government – at all levels – to succeed, it must attract, develop, engage, and retain talent. I think this is the biggest challenge facing the public sector today. Government can’t be effective without talented and committed employees – the right people with the right skills in the right places at the right times.

And yet, government is often at a disadvantage in competing for talent, in areas such as compensation, the hiring process, workplace flexibility and public image.

That’s why I have devoted most of my career to helping government attract and retain talent. I’ve worked in or with all levels of government – federal, state, and local – as well as the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service and the University of Wisconsin.

At all the stops in my career, I’ve tried to help create the culture, systems and processes that enable the public sector to build the workforce it needs to deliver to the American public.

2. What advice would you give to those curious about a career in human resources?

I’d start by saying that there is nothing more important in all sectors and organizations than attracting and retaining talent. An organization can have great ideas, sound policies and even innovative technology. But if the organization doesn’t have the talent to execute on those ideas, implement those policies and manage that technology, it can’t succeed.

Human resources, especially in government, is a noble calling.

I’d also advise them to pursue formal education or training in HR. Human resources is a profession with a body of knowledge and competencies just like other professions, and success in HR requires mastering this knowledge and these competencies.

Another piece of advice is to learn the technical aspects of HR, whether it’s recruitment and selection, classification and compensation, training, etc., but also adopt a strategic perspective. In other words, how do the specific HR functions enable the organization to succeed? What data are – or should be – collected and analyzed to assess whether the organization is successfully attracting developing, engaging, and retaining talent?

Because that’s the bottom line – HR must rely on data to convince leaders, especially in government, that people are an asset to be invested in, not a cost to be minimized.

3. How can the public sector better compete with the private sector in regard to talent acquisition?

Public service used to be a highly respected profession, described as a “noble calling” by President George H. W. Bush. The best and brightest aspired to make a difference through government service – in Washington, DC; in their state capitals; and in their local communities.

Today, however, government has a branding problem. Many people won’t consider government careers because they don’t understand how their skills can be applied, or they have a negative opinion of government and government employment. Boring, bureaucratic, and so on.

The public sector needs to do a much better job marketing (yes – marketing, not a bad word) the many opportunities in government to do fulfilling work that makes a difference. Most government organizations – federal, state, and local – have a wide variety of opportunities in many occupational fields to perform meaningful work. However, most people don’t realize the diversity of government work, and the many ways that government positively affects the lives of people across our nation.

Of course, where government compensation is not competitive, that needs to be fixed. The public sector shouldn’t be competing for talent with the fast-food industry.

And government needs to create more user-friendly hiring processes. This means using technology and making the hiring process timelier.

It also means ditching hard-and fast minimum requirements like years of experience and educational credentials, except where they are absolutely required. Hiring decisions should be based on whether candidates can do the job regardless of any arbitrary minimum qualifications. Of course, that’s a lot harder than merely checking the box about years of experience or education. But hiring based on competencies can enable government organizations to build and maintain talented and diverse workforces.

Many challenges – but many opportunities too.

4. What would you currently consider the most critical challenge over the next five years for human resources and why?

I think what has occurred in the workplace during the last three years is a permanent evolution in where and how people want to work. This “great reassessment” has led to a migration of millions of Americans to different jobs and working arrangements as they reexamine what they want out of their jobs, and how their work lives integrate with their personal lives.

One result is that employees want maximum flexibility. Organizations, including in government, need to adapt to this demand, or they will be at an extreme disadvantage in the search for talent. For example, one analysis revealed that job ads that offer remote work, even in a hybrid arrangement, attract seven times as many candidates as ads that are silent on flexibility.

But the workplace evolution is about more than flexibility. Employees are demanding a positive employee experience, defined as the full range of interactions between the employer and employee, from hire to retire. Organizations that focus on these moments that matter – and use data to measure the quality of the experience – will be able to build and maintain high-performing workforces. Organizations that don’t, won’t.

Another major challenge is to create diverse, equitable and inclusive workplaces. Government has a particular responsibility to build workforces that represent the people it serves. Moreover, diverse, inclusive, and equitable organizations and cultures will attract and retain talented people who demand and seek these kinds of cultures. So, focusing on DEI is not just the right thing to do – it’s also a business imperative.

The challenge for HR is not just to create the systems and process to attract and retain talent but also to generate the evidence and data to show that these systems and processes are working to enable the organization to succeed. That is the bottom line for HR.

5. What is your favorite cuisine?

As a proud Italian American who grew up in a household where we ate pasta at least three times every week, that’s easy – Italian food.

6. What is your favorite hobby or activity that you enjoy doing in your free time?

My wife Pat and I have five wonderful grandchildren and we derive great joy in spending time with them (and with their parents too, of course).

I am also a sports fan, particularly for college basketball. For more than 50 years, I’ve rooted for my undergraduate school, George Washington University, through good times and bad (unfortunately, a few more of the latter than the former). I’ve traveled across the country to watch the Colonials.

I played one year of college basketball at GW as a walk-on. I sent most of the time sitting on the bench, but it was a great experience nonetheless. I played against three guys who went on to long careers in professional basketball, one of whom also became a U.S. congressman.

									 Lavigna Robert hs11 7669

About Robert Lavigna

Previously, Robert Lavigna was Director of the Institute for Public Sector Employee Engagement. The Institute helps public-sector and nonprofit organizations measure and improve employee engagement as a key to improving performance.

Robert writes and speaks frequently on how to maximize the employee experience, consults on strategies to become an employer of choice and build employee engagement. Hes spoken across the U.S. and in Canada, Europe, Asia, South America, the Caribbean, Africa, and the Middle East. One recent attendee described his presentation as, “A 10/10 – phenomenal!”

Robert was selected as a “Public Official of the Year” by Governing magazine and received the highest achievement awards from the International Public Management Association (IPMA-HR) and the National Association of State Personnel Executives. Robert is also a past president of IPMA-HR and a past national chair of the American Society for Public Administration Section on Personnel and Labor Relations.

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