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Commerce breach of personal data just the tip of the iceberg

By Joe Davidson
Friday, February 5, 2010; A16

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, addressing the worries of department employees whose personal information was released on the Internet, told them Thursday, "These failures are simply unacceptable."

In a department-wide e-mail sent Thursday, Locke cited "two incidents in the last six months where a significant number of employees' personal information was not properly protected on our computer systems for a brief period."

That's not all. "In recent weeks, we also discovered additional incidents where some employees failed to follow the proper protocol for handling personal information," Locke said. Not all of the incidents involved the release of Social Security numbers on the Internet, as occurred in December, according to a department spokesman.

Locke offered no explanation for why it took officials seven weeks to notify Commerce employees of the Dec. 4 breach, but he did say, "We have no reason to believe that any of these incidents has resulted in any personal information being inappropriately used by anyone."

He said the department has hired an outside company to monitor employees' personal information for unusual activity. He also asked Deputy Secretary Dennis F. Hightower to review department policies and practices relating to the confidentiality of personal information and deliver a plan for improving protection of that information by March 1.

'A growing skepticism'

Federal workers who want to advance might want to look at a report issued last week by the Merit Systems Protection Board.

"Fair and Equitable Treatment: Progress Made and Challenges Remaining" contains valuable information on diversity in the federal workplace and alarming findings on fairness. But it is the section on advancement that workers might find most useful.

Through interviews and surveys, the MSPB came up with a list of 10 "career accelerators." These are workplace situations that help employees move up the promotional ladder. The two top items relate directly to personal contacts.

"A supportive supervisor to encourage my development and advancement" and "senior person/mentor (other than my supervisor) looking out for my interests" each were identified as having a positive impact by 85 percent of those surveyed.

"Clearly, one should not underestimate the power of personal connections in the workplace," the report says. "Given their nearly absolute control over the developmental opportunities employees receive, supervisors play crucial roles in determining the fate of their employees."

This, of course, allows for bias and favoritism. The report says fears about unfair and inequitable treatment are on the rise, even as perceptions of ethnic and racial discrimination have declined.

"Suspicions regarding traditional/blatant forms of discrimination have been supplanted by a growing skepticism about managers making their decisions in accord with the merit principles," the MSPB found in responses to its Career Advancement Survey.

The flip side of having encouraging supervisors and mentors is the feeling that "who you know," which carries a negative connotation, is what counts when it comes to promotions. Far more respondents, 72 percent, picked that as a reason for advancement, than did those who cited competence (40 percent) or hard work (36 percent).

Disturbingly, "over 70 percent of employees believed that some supervisors practiced favoritism," according to the report. And those views cross racial and ethnic lines. My mail indicates that's a prime factor undermining confidence in federal pay-for-performance systems.

Showing what you can do is an important way to be promoted. Being appointed an acting supervisor presents a "critical opportunity for employees who aspire to demonstrate that they can handle the responsibilities" of being the boss, the report says.

"Opportunity" seems to be the operative word here.

"Unfortunately, our survey results indicate that members of minority groups report that they have less opportunity to serve in an acting capacity than White employees," the MSPB found. "Further, these discrepancies do not appear to be diminishing."

The MSPB urged agencies to measure how their policies and practices help or hinder progress toward workplace fairness. The measurement should include a workplace analysis that covers, among other things, "possible barriers to a fully representative workforce." They also should "emphasize to supervisors their influence over -- and responsibility for -- the career development of the employees they supervise."

Among other recommendations, the MSPB advises employees to seek or create developmental opportunities and to develop productive relationships with supervisors or other mentors.

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