There is increased attention on congressional staff in recent months — from the House forming the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, to members of Congress making headlines for poor treatment of staff or being applauded for championing a living wage for staff. A common theme is how to reform Congress to attract and retain the most qualified employees, and in turn, increase congressional capacity. This includes calls to increase diversity among congressional staff and non-salary based reforms  such as making training more widely available. The amount of turnover among congressional staff is well documented, yet most of the academic research on staff careers focuses on the revolving door to K Street. In my own work, I borrow from studies on civil servant turnover in the executive branch to understand staffer exit intention in Congress. I find that similar to civil servants, congressional staff who report dissatisfaction with pay and “burnout” report higher levels of turnover intention.

To understand exit intention, Jennifer L. Selin and I administered a survey to over 12,000 personal and committee staff in the 115th Congress (2017-2018). Staff were asked, “How likely is it that you will leave your office [committee] in the next 12 months?”

Studying exit intention is imperative to gain a broader understanding of best practices in congressional human resource management. Grumblings among staff about leaving their positions sends important signals about the workplace environment. Further, previous studies find reporting exit intention is positively correlated with actual exit. In addition, “water cooler talk” about leaving shapes workplace attitudes and morale, which in turn impacts the effectiveness of Congress and its ability to fulfill constitutional duties.

To be sure, exit intention and actual exit are distinct. I therefore tracked staffers next employment opportunities. Eighty-two percent of staff who said they were very likely to leave their current position in the next 12 months actually did so. This is in contrast to the 19 percent of staff who said they were very unlikely to turnover and actually did. As these results suggest, an overwhelming majority of staff who indicate they will leave their positions actually do so.

Figure 1: Exit Intention

Taken as a whole, staff seem quite divided on exit intention. Close to 30 percent of respondents reported they were very likely to leave their current position. Yet 26 percent reported they were very unlikely to leave their position. However, when I separate by type and position, important differences in exit intention emerge.

 Figure 2: Exit Intention by Chamber and Type of Staff

Senate staff appear to be more united in their likelihood of exit intention, with a majority reporting they were likely or very likely to leave. In contrast, House staff appear more divided with roughly 30 percent indicating they were very likely to exit and over 25 percent indicating very unlikely. Focusing next on the type of staff important descriptive differences are, again, present. Over 30 percent of personal staff indicated they were very likely to leave in the next 12 months, while in contrast, roughly half of this percentage of committee staff were very likely to report exit intention.

Of course, factors aside from chamber and office type can influence whether an individual wishes to leave her current position. When I estimate models predicting exit intention and account for such factors like an individual’s employment history, work environment, burnout, and demographic characteristics, I find that similar to civil servants, staff who report dissatisfaction with pay and “burnout” report higher levels of turnover intention. Staff who believe promotions are based on performance are less likely to report turnover intention. At first glance, these findings might appear unrelated. However, similar findings are reported on turnover in the executive branch. Employees who feel their performance is rewarded and promotions are merit-based are less likely to turnover. At the same time, attaining job-specific goals provides a sense of accomplishment which mitigates burnout and  in turn, decreases employees’ desire to leave their current position.

While member allowances for staff salaries suggest members have an equal opportunity to attract and retain the most qualified employees, there are over 535 unique small businesses operating within Congress that implement their own workplace practices. My  findings are consistent with suggestions there are practices Congress can implement to help recruit and retain staff beyond increasing salary. While preliminary, these results suggest congressional offices ought to mitigate “burnout” among staff and provide opportunities for advancement that are performance-based. Importantly, however, office practices that work well in personal offices might not play out as well in committee offices.


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Topics: Congressional Staffing
Hanna Brant
My dissertation examines how personnel management of staff impacts legislatures. I explore this dynamic at both the congressional and state level with...