For most congressional aides, coming to work on the Hill is a lesson in trade-offs. Sure, the job is prestigious, but the pay is subpar; there’s access to powerful politicians and exposure to their terrible tempers; you might love the work but hate everything else in your life.
But for a lucky few, staffing a member of Congress comes with a different lesson, one about the value of a strong workplace culture and working for a nice boss.
The Congressional Management Foundation honored two of those rare, good bosses in Congress last month — Reps. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and Barry Moore, R-Ala. — at the foundation’s annual Democracy Awards. Roll Call reached out to both offices to find out what set them apart.
The nonprofit launched the awards program in 2018 as a way of enticing accolade-hungry members of Congress to run their offices more effectively and efficiently, CMF President and CEO Brad Fitch said. The selection process also doubles as research into the best human resources practices in Congress, an institution that employs thousands without anything akin to a centralized HR department.
After offices nominate themselves, CMF conducts interviews to assess their workplace cultures.
“‘Workplace culture’ sounds intangible,” Fitch said. “But what it leads to is greater job engagement by the employee, which usually leads to greater employee retention.”
According to research in the HR world, Fitch said, job engagement boils down to a single question: “Do employees feel as though they are supported by their colleagues and their bosses?”
Put another way: Do your co-workers care about you? “Now, I’m from New York: When I first read that, I’m like, ‘That’s bull—-,’” Fitch said. “Like, ‘Yeah, I care about you, person — I pay you! Now get back to work.’”
But management studies show employees want more than just a paycheck. “The research, when you drill down further, is saying that’s not enough,” Fitch said.
Practicing what they preach
Khanna and his chief of staff, Geo Saba, decided to focus on office culture a few years ago in part because they felt his authenticity was on the line. During the pandemic, Khanna had advocated for a “workers’ bill of rights.”
“We’ve got to model what we’re preaching,” Khanna remembers thinking. “How can we be talking about family-supporting wages publicly if we aren’t paying a family-supporting wage in our office?”
Khanna said he drew inspiration from the Silicon Valley CEOs in his district. “You go to a tech company, and people have a lot of flexibility. They work really hard hours, but they’re empowered,” he said. “I just think that that actually creates a much more productive environment.”
A similar logic drove their own focus on workplace culture, said Moore’s chief of staff, Shana Teehan. “It really comes down to taking care of our constituents,” said Teehan. “If you’re going to give the best service, you need the best staff, and if you want the best staff, you need something to entice them — that they are going to be paid well, treated well, respected, and that their work is going to be honored.”
The proof is in the pudding, she said. Moore’s office was a finalist for another CMF award this year, for constituent accountability and accessibility.
Khanna similarly said his investment in worker happiness was paying dividends, pointing to work his legislative staff has done getting bills enacted, while his communications team gets him on TV as much as any other four-term representative.
In interviews with Roll Call, the chiefs of staff tended to focus on the tangibles of workplace culture. Saba credited the larger-than-average starting salary of $71,000, while Teehan pointed to a permissive telework policy. Both touted flexible hours and generous paid time off.
But it was the intangibles that mattered most to lower-level staff.
“The two things that pop into mind are the room for growth and our office’s transparency and communication,” said Simeone Chien, who started as a field rep for Khanna in 2020.
“The leadership in the office really helped empower me to grow into my position, and so now I’m the director of constituent services,” she said.
Legions of recent graduates keep Congress running, and growth can be a sore spot for those who would rather stay in the public sector than defect to higher-paying lobbying jobs. Roughly 60 percent of congressional staffers were under the age of 35, according to a 2020 report from the left-leaning think tank New America, which also found that the average tenure for Hill staff was just over three years.
In Moore’s office, Teehan points to a development plan that every staffer gets. “We help them set goals for the year that are focused on growing as professionals,” she said. “It helps them prepare for the future, whether that’ll be in our office or another Hill office or off the Hill.”
As for communication, Congress is often a place of excessive deference, with aides adopting both the policy positions and the personality traits of their bosses. But Khanna’s staffers described a different atmosphere.
Jordan Tachibana joined his district office in July as a scheduler after an internship in the spring. She said even junior workers like her feel their voices are heard. “Ro is so open and supportive of staff,” Tachibana said. “I should be the low man on the totem pole, but he takes my ideas, and he is very open to them.”
Ky Ban, a defense fellow in Khanna’s office, described a “circular” flow of opinions in the office that’s in stark contrast to the top-down hierarchy he’s accustomed to in the U.S. Army. “The member really values each of the staff’s opinions when he asks them,” Ban said. “And that goes from the senior members of the staff … all the way down to myself as a fellow and even our interns.”
According to Fitch, setting a workplace culture starts at the top. “If you don’t have a member that acknowledges the value of their employees, you’re never going to be able to create a workplace culture,” he said.
But Khanna staffers noted that everyone at every level of the org chart needs to commit to the team mentality. “In our office, the collaborative environment is very important,” said Hiep Xuan Nguyen, a senior adviser in Khanna’s district office. “We help each other.”
That norm-setting starts before anyone is hired, Chien said. The entire office is invited to interviews with potential hires. While most staff sit quietly as a manager conducts the Zoom interview, everyone who joins — it’s voluntary — has to sign off on making a job offer.
When organizers looking to unionize congressional offices went public last year, Khanna’s staff were one of the first to form one, with his support. Khanna said he was actually a little nervous they wouldn’t unionize, so he dropped hints about his stance on the issue. “I wanted to be out there leading,” he said. “Obviously, I can’t tell them to unionize — that’d be against the rules — but I said that I would welcome whatever they wanted to do.”
His staff confirmed Khanna’s account. “We wanted to be ahead of the game,” said Chien, who was a union-eligible junior staffer when the union formed. “It wasn’t necessarily, ‘Oh, our office needed change,’ but [that] we wanted to be part of that movement.”