The Florida Sterling Council recently awarded Lee County with its Sterling Best Practice Award for Workforce Development and Retention.
Government agencies aren’t always regarded by the public as models of efficiency.
The Lee County Tax Collector’s office aims to change that perception by controlling costs and maintaining a high level of customer service — like any good business. For the county’s only agency that collects the dollars it spends on its own operations, that strategy is rooted in hiring the right personnel and, perhaps even more taxing, keeping them.
Creating a consistent workplace environment among 245 employees spread out over seven offices throughout Lee County is hard enough. But a rash of turnover a few years ago, when the office had to replace nearly one-fourth of new hires within six months, compounded the situation. With costs of about $13,000 for each new employee, lost productivity and constant training of new hires, changes had to be made.
That was in 2017, and it’s when Lee County Tax Collector Larry Hart and his management team took on the challenge of implementing new hiring and training programs to build that post-probationary retention rate to nearly 95% today. For its efforts, the agency was recently honored by the Florida Sterling Council with its Sterling Best Practice Award for Workforce Development and Retention.
“The Florida Sterling process gives us an opportunity to look at what we do as an agency and to help us look at our systemic approaches to employee retention,” says Hart, former police chief for the Fort Myers Police Department, first elected to his current post in 2012. “Not that there was necessarily a systemic problem, but we wanted to improve on what we do.”
Established in 1992, the Florida Sterling Council oversees the Governor’s Sterling Award for Performance Excellence and consults with participants on elevating performance and increasing productivity. After implementing best practices that the agency culled from its own observations of companies and other government agencies, the results encouraged agency leadership to self-nominate for the award.
“After several years of going to conferences and learning best practices," Chief Deputy Tax Collector Noelle Branning says, "we realized we were ready to take the step for a formal site visit and have Sterling come in and do a deep dive into everything we do."
An ‘Inside Look’
What they do is engage in a comprehensive recruiting process that provides prospective employees with a thorough examination of the variety of tasks customer service representatives must perform — and the culture in which they will perform them, says Tracy Reynolds, the agency's human resources director. In other words, the Tax Collector’s office wanted them to have a greater understanding of what they were getting into.
"They have a real understanding of our culture. They’re excited about understanding why the tax collector exists and why they are here to serve the public every day." Noelle Branning, Lee County Tax Collector's office
To accomplish that, Hart and the management team established the agency’s “Inside Look” program, the second step in the recruitment process that exposes applicants to a behind-the-scenes review of the job they’re seeking. It includes meeting with department management, job shadowing, interaction with current employees and exposure to the agency’s culture. Before they get that far, though, front-line employees who perform those tasks every day are included in the initial interviewing process and invited to provide input.
“A lot of times you go for an interview, and you get a job, but you don’t always see what you are going to be doing,” Hart says. “The Inside Look gives you a chance to sit with someone you would be working with and get a feel for whether this is for you or not. That helps us on the front end — giving them that inside look and seeing what the expectations are. They actually see what they will be doing and who they will be working with before they actually receive a job offer.”
Once hired, employees are immersed in training and peer mentoring that assigns them to a veteran staff member to provide guidance.
“Our overall retention percentages beyond the probationary period have been in the mid-90s for years, so we’ve never had a big problem with that,” Reynolds says. “But we know with the changing and improving economy, there are more job opportunities out there, and we are competing with the private sector. So we want to make sure when we are hiring, we are getting the best and keeping them.”
That begins with ensuring prospective employees understand the responsibilities of the position they seek. Customer service representatives work with businesses and residents in a variety of licensing and fee collections, from driver’s licenses to hunting and fishing licenses to property taxes. And they must be able to move within those areas of responsibility — and sometimes even between offices — seamlessly.
To maintain continuity, agency management holds quarterly messaging meetings at each office, which are spread out from North Fort Myers in the north and Bonita Springs in the south, and from Cape Coral in the west to Lehigh Acres in the east. At those meetings, two-way communication is encouraged. “We call it ‘pass up, pass down,’” Hart says.
“We never refer to our offices as branches,” Reynolds adds. “They are team members. I think one of the most important things is you can never forget the outliers because they are just as important as the people in the main building downtown.
Longevity is encouraged
Hart describes the work environment of the Tax Collector’s office as one in which versatility, efficiency and the ability to deliver a quality level of service are paramount — and stand in contrast to stereotypical public perception.
“We have to have so many employees ready to serve the public when the doors open, and if we cannot retain them and we are losing them within those six months, it costs us because then we have to go back and re-advertise, hire and train again,” Hart says. “We have to be able to retain them and not have to reinvest the money within four or five months. Each time we have to start over, we invest in that new employee for more than year. Our new process results in a big cost savings to the public.”
Those savings are important for the agency, which had a budget of $21.4 million in fiscal year 2017-18, $17.3 million earmarked for personnel costs.
Once hired, the next phase of the retention program kicks in, which includes peer mentoring. An ancillary benefit is the transfer of institutional knowledge that not only ensures continuity during attrition but also immerses the probationary employee in the agency’s culture.
“They’re more engaged. They’re learning. They want to grow. They want to come in and do a good job," says Tammy Helmer, a 30-year employee of the agency who has served as a Florida Sterling examiner for a decade. “And the more we show them, the more excited they are to become a part of the organization. They are a valuable resource, and they know we truly are invested in them. And it shows through these processes.”
Branning adds: “They have a real understanding of our culture. They’re excited about understanding why the tax collector exists and why they are here to serve the public every day.”
Agency longevity can be rewarding. Compensation for entry-level positions is $14 per hour, which increases to $14.50 after four months. Employees enter a ladder system after two years, when they may take an assessment to advance to specialist level, which pays $16. Another successful assessment two years later earns senior specialist status, which starts at $17 per hour. Senior specialists who stay on the job can eventually earn in the mid-$50,000s.
There are plenty of employees who have done just that. “We have some who started at 18 years old who are now senior level employees,” Hart says. “We have many with 25 years or more of service. The challenge is making sure those who will be remaining here are trained as the veterans exit. That’s why the onboarding process and sharing that knowledge is extremely important to the future of this agency.”
As is the adaptability of the veteran specialist, Hart says government service requires flexibility, given the changes in statutes in Lee County and in Tallahassee, in addition to the region's growth surge.
“I think any employee here will tell you that if you don’t like change, you’re in the wrong place,” Hart says. “I’m a change agent. You have to be flexible because we have to serve the public, and we have to look at what the public needs. Those needs change over time, and expectations of level of service change as well.”