An examination of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey suggests that a career at the IRS is a strong match with Millennials’ and Zoomers’ core job preferences—work-life balance, job security, and service orientation)—as well as preferences for job clarity (e.g., a clear job path, understandable expectations, and effective feedback) and opportunities for human interaction. Areas for potential improvement at the IRS include offering more opportunities for advancement, bolstering personal empowerment, fostering motivation, increasing support for diversity, and explicitly rewarding creativity. In a tight job market where applicants may receive multiple offers, improving how the IRS is perceived in these areas may be especially beneficial for recruitment.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) lacks sufficient staff to answer the phone, open mail, audit tax returns, and collect delinquent tax liabilities (Robert A. Warren and Timothy J. Fogarty, “More Tax Cops Are Needed to Close the Tax Gap,” Tax Notes Federal, vol. 172, pp. 1763-1770, 2021). From Fiscal Year (FY) 2009 through FY 2020, budget cuts resulted in a 36% reduction in the number of revenue agents, a 44% reduction in the number of revenue officers, and a 25% reduction in the number of special agents (Warren and Fogarty, 2021). In addition, 60% of IRS employees intend to retire in the next six years (IRS Fiscal Year 2023: Congressional Budget Justification and Annual Performance Report and Plan, Publication 4450, Rev. 3-2022, 2022, https://bit.ly/3UNRDY3). Recently, the IRS had recruited, trained, and deployed only 67% of the new workers it needs to deliver basic customer service and process tax returns [Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration: Results of the 2021 Filing Season (2022-40-024), 2022, https://bit.ly/3E15L9J]. Although the Inflation Adjustment Act of 2022 (PL 117-169) provides substantial funding intended to fill worker shortages at the IRS, the question remains: Who will fill these positions at a time when there are nearly twice as many job openings as there are unemployed workers? (Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary, August 30, 2022, https://bit.ly/3Aaowqd)
The most natural job candidates for filling the severe vacancies at the IRS are members of Generation Z (Zoomers) who have the prerequisite accounting coursework and who wish to begin a career in public service, and Millennials who have several years of accounting experience under their belts. Accordingly, this article evaluates how well the career preferences of the IRS’s potential applicant pool align with working conditions at the IRS via analysis of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), which the authors obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This evaluation might identify perceived strengths and weaknesses in working conditions at IRS through the lens of its potential applicant pool. It may also serve as a catalyst for encouraging faculty to talk to students about a career in public service at the IRS. Finally, it provides insights for Millennials and Zoomers in terms of evaluating or accepting a position at the IRS.
What Are Millennials’ and Zoomers’ Career Preferences?
The authors reviewed the literature to learn how applicants for IRS positions are likely to evaluate new job prospects. First, they culled the literature based on the IRS’s minimum entrance requirements for new professionals. In general, the IRS describes its entry level requirements as 1) having U.S. citizenship and 2) possessing prerequisite accounting course-work or degrees, depending on the position sought (IRS Jobs: Job Descriptions, 2020; https://www.jobs.irs.gov/resources/job-descriptions).
Consequently, the authors examined recent studies conducted on samples of U.S. accounting students and professionals age 40 or under as proxies for new IRS applicants (i.e., Millennials and Zoomers). Although it would have been ideal to limit the review further to persons interested in a career in taxation and/or public service, the literature was too limited to do so. To consider more expansive longer-term possibilities for IRS job applicants, the authors also examined more comprehensive surveys of Millennials and Zoomers that were not limited to accounting students or practicing accountants [Karin L. Becker, “We Want Connection and We Do not Mean Wi-fi: Examining the Impacts of COVID-19 on Gen Z’s Work and Employment Outcomes,” Management Research Review, vol. 45, no. 5, pp. 684-699, 2021; Deloitte, A Call for Accountability and Action: The Deloitte Global 2021 Millennial and Gen Z Survey, 2021, https://bit.ly/3g27ljJ; Manpower Group, Millennial Careers: 2020 vision. Facts, Figures and Advice from Workforce Experts, 2017, https://bit.ly/3E4UkxX; PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Millennials at work: Reshaping the workplace, 2011, https://pwc.to/3Tx4nBg].
The authors’ review indicated that new IRS applicants are likely to make an employment decision based on the following:
- Core preferences for work-life balance, job security, and service, with work-life balance being the most important (Barbara S. White, Bruce I. Davidson, and Zoe Cullen, “Career Anchors of Millennial Accountants,” Advances in Accounting Behavior Research, 2020, vol. 23, pp. 141-161; Barbara S. White, Bruce I. Davidson, and Victoria Guboglo, “Paycheck, Culture, Work-life Balance: How to Attract and Retain, Millennial Accountants,” The CPA Journal, 2022, vol. 91, no. 12, pp. 10-12);
- Job clarity—that is, a clearly defined job path, understandable goals and expectations, and frequent feedback (PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2011; White, Davidson, and Guboglo, 2022);
- Human interaction following COVID-19 (Becker, 2021; White, Davidson, and Guboglo, 2022); and
- Other attractive job features—that is, professional growth opportunities, positive work culture, employer reputation, and chances to exercise creativity in the workplace (Manpower Group, 2017; PricewaterhouseCoopers, 2011; White, Davidson, and Guboglo, 2022).
Do Working Conditions at the IRS Match Millennials’ and Zoomers’ Career Preferences?
To evaluate the “fit” between working at the IRS and Millennials’ and Zoom-ers’ career preferences, the authors analyzed the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), which the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) administers to federal employees annually. Government-wide and agency-level (e.g., the U.S. Department of the Treasury) FEVS results are frequently accessible directly on the Internet; however, a FOIA request was necessary to obtain second-level sub-agency reports for the IRS.
The authors have drawn their main conclusions from the 2019 FEVS and provided comparative findings from 2020 and 2021, if the OPM collected these data items, for two reasons:
- Results for 2019 may provide the most informative insights about standard working conditions at the IRS because 2019 was the most recent year prior to the pandemic. Subsequent findings indicate operations were altered significantly during the pandemic.
- FEVS instruments, sampling, and other processes changed such that the 2019 survey may be the most informative for the purposes of this study. More specifically, in 2020 (2021) core survey questions were reduced to 38 (44) from 71, so that new questions specific to the pandemic could be included (U.S. Department of the Treasury: 2021 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey Results, 2022, https://bit.ly/3TBqcjo; U.S. Department of the Treasury: 2020 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey Results, 2021, https://bit.ly/3trAKa3). As a consequence, the authors have concluded that many items likely to be of interest to Millennials and Zoomers were omitted from the 2020 and 2021 surveys. In addition, temporary and seasonal workers were included in the 2021 survey for the first time (Treasury, 2022); thus, results for 2021 may be less well aligned with the viewpoints of accounting professionals. Furthermore, in 2021, the OPM surveyed only a sample of federal agencies’ populations, decreased survey reminders, and reduced the survey period from six to five weeks. The Department of the Treasury reports that its response rate declined to 38% in 2021, compared to 56% in 2020. Because of changes in OPM reporting methods for 2021, the authors’ FOIA materials did not include the IRS FEVS response rate for 2021. The authors, however, estimate that under 11% of IRS employees participated in the 2021 FEVS, compared with 53% in 2020 and 51% in 2019. [The authors estimated this participation rate based on the highest number of IRS responses to any question on the 2021 FEVS divided by the total number of IRS employees at the end of the survey period (OPM, https://www.fedscope.opm.gov/).]
A total of 31,457 IRS employees completed the 2019 FEVS. Of those respondents, 38.5% were males and 61.5% were females; 67% were white; 21% were African American, and 12% were of other races. Nearly 15% were Millennials or Zoomers. Responses were weighted to provide a representative sample. These demographic characteristics were quite similar for IRS participants in the 2020 and 2021 FEVS.
To preserve respondents’ anonymity, the OPM did not provide data that would allow survey responses to be sorted by certain demographic variables such as age. In addition, several survey questions were not provided in the raw data set. Thus, the authors relied on OPM reports that collapsed 5-point Likert scale responses into three categories: positive (for responses employees rated 4 or 5), neutral (responses employees rated 3), and negative (responses employees rated 2 or 1). There was some variability in how Likert scales were phrased. The OPM reports excluded missing values, including “Do Not Know” and “No Basis to Judge,” in the calculation of percentages of positive, neutral, and negative responses. Generally, positive responses were phrased as “Strongly Agree” and “Agree,” “Very Satisfied” and “Satisfied,” or “Very Good” and “Good.” Neutral responses were phrased as “Neither Agree nor Disagree,” “Neither Satisfied nor Dissatisfied,” or “Fair.” Negative responses were phrased as “Disagree” and “Strongly Disagree,” “Dissatisfied” and “Very Dissatisfied,” or “Poor” and “Very Poor.”
The authors served as an expert panel to identify which of the 85 items on the 2019 FEVS best measured the Millennials’ and Zoomers’ career preference as identified in the literature review. The authors collective qualifications include: 1) 25 years of employment experience at the IRS as a revenue agent, special agent, supervisory special agent, and senior analyst; 2) 13 years in public accounting and private accounting, including experience at the executive level; 3) 23 years of experience as faculty members in academia or research administrators. They identified 31 items as relevant to the following categories: job clarity (6 items), human interactions (5), work-life balance (5), job security (3), and service (2), plus 10 items related to the other workplace preferences identified in the literature review. In a few areas, such as job security, supplemental data sources were also evaluated.
The results from the FEVS alone proved insights for evaluating job fit at the IRS. The authors, however, sought additional information about the current career satisfaction of accountants in the rest of the U.S. workforce. Although recent data appeared to be absent from academic and governmental studies, several proprietary studies suggested high levels of dissatisfaction among accountants as a whole. For example, Career-Explorer (“Are Accountants happy?” https://bit.ly/3URhBdm) reports that, based on its continuous sampling of millions of survey participants, accountants rank their “career happiness” at only 2.6 out of 5 stars (52%), placing accounting in the lowest 6% of all careers.
No recent large-scale studies appear to provide measures of career satisfaction exclusively for accountants who are Millennials or Zoomers. However, Deloitte’s (2022) study of more than 23,000 participants indicate that overall, 40% of Zoomers and 25% of Millennials worldwide would like to leave their jobs in the next two years, with 35% and 32% respectively prepared to leave without another job in place (Striving for Balance, Advocating for Change: The Deloitte Global Gen Z & Millennial Survey.https://bit.ly/3EwKqXa). These statistics suggest the possibility of high levels of career dissatisfaction among these generations.
Considering these benchmarks, the fact that 68% of IRS participants in the 2019 FEVS were satisfied with their jobs overall appears to be a very favorable result. Contrary to workplace dissatisfaction that triggered the Great Resignation (Kim Parker and Juliana Menasce Horwitz, “Majority of workers who quit a job in 2021 cite low pay, no opportunities for advancement, feeling disrespected,” Pew Research Center, 2022, https://pewrsr.ch/3AhFino), overall job satisfaction rates at the IRS increased during the pandemic years (i.e., to 74% in 2020 and 70% in 2021).
Core Preferences: Work-life Balance, Job Security, and Service
The literature suggests that work-life balance is the most important consideration for Zoomers and Millennials (White, Davidson, and Cullen, 2020; White, Davidson, and Guboglo, 2022). FEVS Survey results for 2019 (Exhibit 1) indicate considerable strength in this area at the IRS in terms of supervisor support for work-life balance, with 84% positive responses. Perceptions of positive supervisor support were higher over the pandemic years among respondents (2020, 87%; 2021, 86%). Nearly 80% of respondents to the 2019 FEVS were satisfied with the telework program and other programs that enable them to benefit from flexible schedules; these positive ratings peaked at 91% in the 2020 FEVS, but were not queried in 2021. Given that many U.S. employees indicate a desire to continue teleworking at the same rates as they did during the pandemic (Parker and Menasce Horwitz, 2022, https://pewrsr.ch/3AhFino), the authors encourage OPM to include this item in future surveys rather than eliminating it as was done in 2021. Otherwise, gauging satisfaction with this important recruiting tool will be difficult.
Teleworking on a daily basis at the IRS has increased sharply, which may prove to be attractive to new recruits—if this practice continues. Only 2.2% of 2019 respondents indicated that they teleworked every day; this increased to 82% of 2020 respondents and 70% of 2021 respondents. Among 2019 respondents, 17% stated that they were not approved to telework even though their jobs were conducive to teleworking. Denials dropped sharply to only 1.7% of 2020 respondents and 2.4% of 2021 respondents.
Positive responses related to reasonableness of workload and senior leadership support for work/life programs (the IRS offers an employee assistance program, health services, child care, and leave-sharing program) were noticeably lower, at slightly below 60% in the 2019 FEVS (Exhibit 1), but both measures improved during the pandemic, with only reasonableness of workload being below 65% in 2021. Given that both measures continue to lag behind other work-life measures, however, the agency might consider ways to strengthen these two areas to make working at IRS more attractive to new job applicants.
Supplemental information provides a clearer picture about job security at the IRS than the FEVS alone. First, a federal employee can only be fired for cause after completing three years of service (5 CFR section 315.201, 2002). Second, federal employees can appeal terminations and suspensions longer than 14 days to the Merit System Protection Board (MPSB, US Merit Systems Protection Board: File an Appeal with MSPB,https://www.mspb.gov/). These protections have translated to fewer than 1% of IRS employees being terminated for discipline or performance in FY2019, 2020, and 2021. Terminations representing a reduction in force comprised just 0.18%, 0%, and 0.13% of the IRS workforce in FY 2019, FY2020, and FY2021, respectively (https://www.fedscope.opm.gov/).
The FEVS provided more nuanced information about job security at the IRS. On the positive side, 68% of 2019 respondents agreed that if they suspected a violation of any law, rule, or regulation, they could report this suspicion without fear of reprisal. These percentages improved over the pandemic years, reaching 72% in 2020 and 71% in 2021. Unfortunately, the FEVS also indicates that a high level of job security may result in a free-rider problem. Nearly half (49%) of 2019 respondents reported that poor performers at the IRS usually remain employed and continue to underperform. Although these percentages dipped during the pandemic years (i.e., 42% in 2020, 43% in 2021), the authors believe they continue to be a source of concern.
In addition, the 2019 survey highlighted the possibility of a government shutdown, which is an atypical consideration for those employed in either public accounting or industry. A majority (63%) of 2019 respondents indicated they had no work and were not paid during the partial government shutdown from December 22, 2018, to January 25, 2019. This situation was temporary, however, and federal employees ultimately earned back pay (Nicole Ogrysko, “Trump signs bill ensuring federal employees get paid after government shutdown,” Federal News Network, 2019, https://bit.ly/3GhPJel).
Overall, the authors conclude that employment at the IRS appears to be more secure than most other nongovernmental, accounting jobs. The authors urge caution, however, about the unintended consequences of secure employment, such as free-rider problems, and other nuances of working for the federal government, such as governmental shutdowns.
Nearly 71% of 2019 respondents indicated that the IRS is successful at accomplishing its mission, with these percentages rising over the pandemic years to 77% in 2020 and 2021. The IRS’s mission is to “provide America’s taxpayers top quality service by helping them understand and meet their tax responsibilities and enforce the law with integrity and fairness to all” (IRS, “The Agency, its Mission and Statutory Authority,” 2022, https://bit.ly/3Aj4n1c). Furthermore, 94% of 2019 respondents indicated that they would contribute extra effort to their jobs, again suggesting wide support for the IRS’s service-oriented mission; unfortunately, this item was neither included in the 2020 nor 2021 FEVS. Given the data available, the authors conclude that the IRS is likely to be a good fit for applicants with strong service orientations.
The literature review indicates that job clarity—defined as a clearly delineated job path, understandable goals and expectations, and frequent feedback—is a component of an ideal job that is widely missing from potential IRS applicants’ current jobs (White, Davidson, and Guboglo, 2022). The vast majority of 2019 FEVS respondents indicated a positive attitude towards job clarity at the IRS (Exhibit 2). Specifically, 83% of employees knew what was expected of them on the job, and 84% believed that they were held accountable for achieving those expectations. Respondents in 2019 were also positive about the feedback they received, with items measuring feedback receiving from 72% to 81% positive approval.
The authors note that the OPM did not query employees about whether they received feedback frequently enough in the 2019 FEVS. Given the desire for frequent feedback among qualified potential applicants (White, Davidson, and Guboglo, 2022), the authors suggest evaluating whether this need for frequency is met. Unfortunately, rather than adding data items related to feedback, the OPM did not query participants about the feedback they received during the pandemic years at all. In addition, the only other item related to job clarity during the pandemic years was whether respondents understood job expectations. Positive percentages on this item were slightly higher during the pandemic (85% in 2020, 84% in 2021), which is encouraging. The authors believe, however, that the OPM may have taken a step backwards in terms of investigating job clarity via the FEVS. Given the importance of this area to potential applicants, the authors encourage the OPM to rectify this shortcoming.
The authors have supplemented the FEVS data and considered that advancement at the IRS is based on the General Service (GS) system, which is clearly delineated (IRS, IRS Careers: GS Schedules, IRS 2020, https://bit.ly/3GjgpLS). Based on this information, the authors conclude that, compared to civilian employment, IRS employment is reasonably likely to be a positive fit for those seeking job clarity.
Overall, 2019 respondents ranked human interactions very favorably, with positive responses being near or above 80% (Exhibit 3). The percentage of positive responses increased over the pandemic years to as high as 88%, suggesting that human interactions actually improved. Positive perceptions in 2019 about whether supervisors worked well with employees of all backgrounds was noticeably lower, however, at 68%. Although this result is not necessarily poor, it may be an area for improvement given increasing emphasis on an inclusive workplace environment. Due to this potential shortcoming, it is somewhat disconcerting that the OPM did not include this item about how well supervisors handled diversity in either 2020 or 2021, although the demographic statistics referenced above suggest that the IRS workforce is diverse.
Most other working conditions at the IRS appear to have room for improvement (Exhibit 4). For example, in terms of professional growth opportunities, although 62% of 2019 respondents believed they had the opportunity to improve their professional skills, only 40% were satisfied with opportunities for promotion. Over the pandemic years, perceptions of opportunities to improve skills increased markedly to 70% (69%) in 2020 (2021). But, disappointingly, OPM discontinued queries on opportunities for promotion, making assessing overall professional growth opportunities precarious.
Other Attractive Job Features: Professional Growth Opportunities, Positive Work Culture, Employer Reputation, and Chances to Exercise Creativity in the Workplace
Regarding signs of a positive work culture, in 2019, only 52% of employees responded positively about IRS senior leaders exhibiting high ethical standards, with only 59% of employees having positive viewpoints on diversity practices at the IRS. Furthermore, in 2019, positive perceptions about personal empowerment and senior leaders as motivators were only 44% and 43%, respectively. The OPM assessed only positive work culture items related to senior leadership during the pandemic. Although these items increased by more than 10% by 2021, positive perceptions of these items remained relatively low.
In 2019, however, 85% of employees indicated that their work unit delivers high-quality work, which increased slightly in 2021 to 86%. In 2019, 65% would recommend the IRS as a good place to work, which improved during the pandemic to 73% in 2020 and 71% in 2021. The authors classified these items as measures of the IRS’s internal reputation, with no measures of external perceptions of the IRS being available in the survey. Given historical distaste for tax collectors among the public (Laura Saunders, “The Saturday I spent fiveand-a-half-hours in line waiting for the IRS,” Wall Street Journal, May 20, 2022, https://on.wsj.com/3UGwuj4), the authors posit that it would be constructive for the IRS to develop a marketing strategy to improve its external reputation with Zoomers and Millennials.
Scores on creativity, which potential applicants desired but were willing to sacrifice for job security (White, Davidson, and Guboglo, 2022), are somewhat mixed; in 2019, 57% felt they were encouraged to look for new ways of doing things, but only 40% believed they were rewarded for creativity. Positive ratings for being encouraged to look for new ways of doing things increased to 65% in 2020, but fell back to 62% in 2021. These positive ratings were relatively low compared to other survey responses. Disconcertingly, the OPM dropped the question about being rewarded for creativity, which had received the lower ratings, during the pandemic years. Creativity is generally considered to be an intrinsic reward. But extrinsic rewards for creativity might be an additional recruitment tool. Thus, considerable ground could be gained by working to shift these neutral perceptions to positive ones.
Attracting Millenials and Zoomers
Exhibit 5 provides a visual summary of the authors’ findings, coded in “stop-light” colors (i.e., green = category met or exceeded expectations; yellow = category may need some improvement; red = category is an area of concern). In sum, analysis of the FEVS indicates that potential Zoomer and Millennial applicants’ core job preferences (i.e., work-life balance, security, and service orientation) may be met with high levels of satisfaction (White, Davidson, and Cullen, 2020; White, Davidson, and Guboglo, 2022). There are a few caveats regarding work-life balance. Senior IRS leadership might have opportunities to improve the support they show for work-life programs. Benefits could also be derived from re-evaluating workloads. Overall, applicants’ needs for job clarity and human interaction are also likely to be largely satisfied.
Summary of Fit between Career Preferences of Potential Applicants and IRS Work Environment
Areas for improvement may include expanding opportunities for advancement, helping employees to feel more empowered, generating greater motivation, increasing support for diversity, rewarding creativity, and developing marketing strategies that strengthen the agency’s external reputation. These other areas are not core job preferences for Zoomers and Millennials (White, Davidson, and Cullen, 2020; White, Davidson, and Guboglo, 2022), and they are marked by higher levels of neutral perceptions, rather than solely being a function of outright negative perceptions among current employees. In the authors’ opinion, these areas are challenging for most organizations. Still, improvements in these areas could be particularly attractive to new recruits who might have multiple job offers.
A first step on the road to improvement probably involves developing a clearer and more detailed understanding of the shortcomings that employees believe the IRS has. Focus groups may be useful in gaining this understanding. Making immediate changes based on feedback obtained from such focus groups (when it is possible and appropriate) is likely to encourage ongoing candor from employees. In the meantime, the IRS might consider using the FEVS results as a recruiting tool. Using the FEVS results is likely to be attractive to professionals at CPA firms during tax season, when burnout is high. FEVS results could also be used as part of efforts to ramp up recruitment at colleges and universities, where the IRS could identify talented prospective employees early, offer them internships, and fast-track hiring upon graduation. The FEVS results are more likely to be useful for recruiting (and other purposes) if the OPM utilizes more consistent survey items each year, develops more consistent survey administration processes, and incorporates more items likely to be of interest to potential Zoomer and Millennial recruits.