The government is filled with honest, hardworking employees. But every large organization has a few bad apples that need to be culled before they spoil the rest of the basket.
Longtime federal employees often swap stories about the bad apple who got promoted or transferred to an out-of-sight job because an agency did not want to take the time, or couldn't muster the courage, to document the poor performance and take disciplinary steps.
Still, many employees also are aware that when discipline is administered, some employees get a crushing penalty, while the well-connected or the higher-ranking get by with a wet-noodle reprimand.
Troubled by such reports, Earl E. Devaney, the inspector general at the Interior Department, has conducted a first-of-its-kind survey of employees, supervisors, personnel officials and lawyers at Interior on conduct and discipline.
His report concludes that the Interior Department "suffers systemic conduct and discipline problems" and says that many employees are afraid to complain or expose misconduct because of fear of reprisal.
In the survey and meetings, Interior employees said they believe misconduct occurs far more frequently than reported.
Twenty percent said they did not report misconduct because "nothing will be done by my supervisor" and 28 percent said they kept quiet because of fears that their supervisor or co-workers would single them out for retaliation.
Forty-six percent of the employees said discipline was administered fairly only "sometimes," if ever. Sixty-four percent of supervisors admitted that they had not taken disciplinary action when warranted.
As a result, the report says, the majority of the employees in the survey believe that "their work environment is unfair. Participants at 13 of the 22 group meetings went even further, saying that they felt trapped in a hostile work environment."
In an interview, Devaney said any organization that does not pay attention to conduct and discipline "runs a risk of demoralizing the workforce. If people see misconduct and report it and see nothing happens and worse, get retaliated against, that's a bad thing."
Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton "takes the report seriously," said Brian Waidmann, her chief of staff. Lynn Scarlett, assistant secretary for policy management, and Kathleen Wheeler, deputy chief human capital officer, have been asked to develop a plan to address Devaney's findings, Waidmann said. The department also plans to hold a symposium on personnel law next month for managers and others.
The inspector general's survey found that substantial numbers of Interior employees believe that no disciplinary action is taken for misconduct they see in the workplace.
For example, 27 percent of Interior employees said managers ignore "time and leave abuse," such as employees skipping out of work early on Fridays. About 20 percent said managers ignore cases in which employees use e-mail, the Internet and government equipment for personal reasons.
Those are not major offenses, of course. But the report also found that numerous managers appear to be ignoring more serious conduct issues. About 13 percent of employees said their bosses took no action when they saw employees making personal use of government vehicles. Eleven percent said their bosses ignored employees working under the influence of alcohol, and 9 percent said managers ignored sexual harassment.
Employees in some parts of Interior suggested that discipline was even more lax. In the Bureau of Indian Affairs, for instance, 37 percent believe that no discipline is administered for misconduct. Also there, 18 percent said working under the influence of alcohol was ignored, and 14 percent said sexual harassment was ignored.
The survey also found that many employees think that favorites are played in disciplinary actions. In one case, a supervisor received a letter of reprimand for delinquent payments on his government credit card, while an employee was suspended for 14 days for the same offense.
Devaney found that Interior has fallen short over the years in setting a clear policy on conduct and discipline, in training supervisors and in developing a clear handbook on discipline.
The findings underscore the challenge facing the government as it tries to link salary decisions more closely to job performance.
As Devaney noted, "Holding people responsible for their performance is not too far afield from holding people responsible for their behavior."