Homeland Security’s morale is at code red

Joe Davidson
Columnist March 22, 2012

If the homeland’s security were dependent on employee morale, we’d be in big trouble.

Fortunately, the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security are committed to the agency’s mission, even as the agency fails to inspire them.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

You know things are bad for workers when a bipartisan congressional hearing is called to examine a department’s drooping spirit. It ranks 31 among 33 large agencies in The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government survey published by the Partnership for Public Service. (The Partnership has a content-sharing relationship with The Washington Post.)

“Why Is Employee Morale Low?” asked Thursday’s hearing by the House Homeland Security panel’s subcommittee on oversight, investigations and management.

“DHS employees strongly believe in their work and mission,” said Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Tex.). Citing a federal employee survey, he asked: “But what does it say when only 37 percent of DHS employees believe senior leaders motivate them and only 37 percent are satisfied with their senior leaders’ policies and practices?”

It says there is a problem with leadership.

Insight on those questions could have been provided by rank-and-file employees, or their representatives, but, curiously, none apparently were invited to appear. The only current federal worker among the five witnesses testifying in person was the department’s top personnel officer, a career employee representing management. The National Treasury Employees Union did submit a written statement.

“The solution must come from the top,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the ranking Democrat on the full committee.

“Unfortunately, the position responsible for establishing human capital priorities, recommending program improvements and implementing corrective actions — the chief human capital officer — has seen one of the highest turnover rates out of all department leadership positions.”

DHS has had eight top personnel managers, including those in an acting capacity, since 2003, Thompson added. “Most last about 13 months.”

One saying repeated during the hearing was a variation of: “People don’t leave jobs, they leave managers.”

Yet, even good managers can’t force good morale.

“Let me state at the outset that it is my belief that morale is not an objective to be achieved in an organization. It is rather the natural byproduct of high-performing people and organizations,” said Thad Allen, a senior vice president of the Booz Allen Hamilton consulting firm and a former admiral in the Coast Guard, a DHS agency. “When there is a shared vision of the mission, commitment to the shared values of an organization and strong and effective leadership that enables employees to be successful, morale ‘happens.’ ”

Catherine V. Emerson, the current DHS chief human capital officer, said the department is implementing a multipronged strategy to improve employee morale that includes establishing an Employee Engagement Executive Steering Committee; improving employee communication and training; emphasizing diversity, inclusion and employee recognition; and strengthening the leadership skills of DHS managers.

Workplace diversity stats

Federal employees of color, those with disabilities, and women, are making small progress in the workplace, but when money talks, it says more needs to be done.

As we blogged Wednesday, a new report by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission shows no increase in the percentage of Latinos in the federal workforce and a small increase in people of color in senior-level positions.

They remain statistically underrepresented, however, in comparison with their numbers in the population. And when it comes to pay and position, many, but not all, lag behind white men.

The average grade and annual pay of General Schedule (GS) and related employees was 10.1 (out of 15 GS grades) and $45,771. For African American employees, it was 9.3 and $44,333; women, 9.5 and $47,103. At 9.7, Latino workers were below average in grade level, but above average in pay, at $49,873, according to the EEOC.

Asian employees (10.6, $53,401) and white staffers (10.4, $50,349) exceeded the government-wide average, as did men (10.7, $54,927).

The percentage of Hispanic employees in the federal workforce was 7.9 percent in fiscal 2009 and 2010. The level of people with disabilities in the workforce was steady at 0.88 percent. At 17.9 percent, blacks were overrepresented in the federal workforce, as were white workers, with 65.4 percent.

At the senior pay levels, white workers remained the overwhelming majority, yet declined slightly from 86.88 percent in 2001 to 83.14 percent in 2010.

During the same period, Latinos continued to be poorly represented in senior-level positions, moving from 3.07 percent to 3.67 percent. African Americans in those jobs also increased less than 1 percent while continuing to be underrepresented at the top levels, moving from 6.76 percent to 7.54 percent.

Senior-level women increased several percentage points from 24.12 percent in 2001 to 29.85 percent in 2010. That remains, however, far below their proportion of the general population or the overall federal workforce.

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson. Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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