As FBI Director James B. Comey focuses the country’s premier law enforcement agency on terrorism and cyberthreats, he is leaning heavily on a little-known corporate tool to deal with a critical part of getting the job done: climate surveys.
Comey is using the surveys to help determine who should be running the most important jobs at the bureau. And in the process, he says, he wants to create a leadership factory.
In an e-mail last year, Comey let all of the bureau’s nearly 35,000 employees know just how seriously he takes the results. “For those leaders whose surveys are covered in red, we need to quickly find a path to improvement, or we need to get them out of the role,” he wrote.
The anonymous responses offer a snapshot of the FBI’s many field offices, pinpointing poor morale, potentially lousy managers and how well the bureau has collaborated with other federal agencies in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
Some of the problems identified occur in any large organization: gripes about pay, cronyism and bad bosses. “I also see the occasional mean comment (even about your beloved Director,” Comey wrote in an e-mail last year. “Ignore the mean people; I do.”)
But the responses also offer a window into how those working at the FBI think the bureau is performing, including in areas such as intelligence sharing and respecting the Constitution.
The Washington Post obtained the 2014 results for all 56 field offices after filing a Freedom of Information Act request.
Comey has made leadership changes at offices with some of the lowest average scores, including in Seattle, Norfolk and Springfield, Ill. Larger offices such as New York and Washington have not been spared, with Comey replacing senior agents in divisions that scored poorly.
Climate surveys were developed by industrial organizational psychologists, who study the workplace. The FBI began using its own version in 2007 to identify emerging problems and what was going smoothly.
Comey calls the surveys “smoke detectors.”
For those who worry about being too honest, he had this reassurance in an e-mail to the workforce: “Let me say it as clearly as I can: responses to the survey are confidential.”
The surveys consist of dozens of questions that touch on integrity, fairness, pay and benefits — among other topics — that offer a “rich source of information about our leadership and our people,” Comey said in an e-mail.
The survey’s answers are given on a scale of 1 to 5 and divided into four categories of green, light green, yellow and red.
Nearly 75 percent of the 2014 survey’s responses were green or light green, a sign that the FBI’s field offices are generally in good shape. Yellow means there are potential problems that could worsen. Red signals significant problems, and about 10 percent of last year’s survey questions scored red.
“Red is dead,” as current and former FBI officials like to say.
Among the questions that received red responses in many field offices were those that dealt with raises, lazy co-workers, promotions, counterproductive work behavior and favoritism, with FBI employees saying that it was “difficult to recover from a mistake” and that “it takes more effort than necessary to get stuff done around here.”
Amy Grubb, an industrial psychologist at the FBI who helps interpret the surveys, said that the latter response was understandable.
“They get a little frustrated with the bureaucracy around here,” she said. “There are a lot of things we have to do because of the nature of the job. We have t’s to cross and i’s to dot to protect civil liberties.”
Still, the surveys strongly indicated that employees were proud of working for the FBI and believed in its mission. They also thought that Americans, for the most part, had a “positive view of the FBI.”
Employees also had a “high level of respect” for Comey and his top executives, an indication, perhaps, that his management style is resonating with the workforce, Grubb said.
Another response that scored very high: “Following the law is just as important as accomplishing the mission.”
In interviews, current and former FBI agents had mixed views of the surveys. Some worried the results would be used to settle scores and wondered whether they could accurately measure performance. Others complained that the questionnaire was too long.
James L. Turgal Jr., assistant director of the agency’s human resources division, said FBI executives rely on other information and not exclusively on the surveys when promoting employees.
“This is just one data point,” he said. “It’s a great assessment tool. But it’s not the ultimate tool.”
He cautioned that some survey responses should be viewed in the proper context. When employees were asked whether they shared information with members of the intelligence community outside the FBI, the results were universally red, meaning there were problems. But Turgal said that is because a large number of FBI employees, including those working cases involving organized crime, do not often collaborate with other intelligence agencies.
As for grousing about pay, Turgal said: “We have absolutely no ability without congressional approval to move us away from the [government pay scale]. It’s a challenge. We’re stuck with it.”