Defense Media Network

Why Is DHS a Crappy Place to Work? – Part 1

Working in a sometimes thankless job

There are lots of lists that people and organizations want to see their name on. They’re lists with categories like “Most Successful,” “Most Admired,” “Best Dressed,” and “Best Place to Work.”

Since its inception nearly a decade ago, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has never made any of those lists. In fact, the lists where they do find their name affixed are the very lists on which no one takes pride in seeing their name appear. They are lists with headings that read, “Worst Place to Work,” “Least Job Satisfaction” or “Worst Workplace Morale.” These are, needless to say, the shameful high school superlative categories from Hell.

So why is DHS such a crappy place to work? That’s a question that’s been the subject of a number of Congressional hearings as well as any number of studies and analyses. The answer is as complicated as the department’s creation.

Let’s face facts. The creation of DHS in the months following the 9/11 attacks was not pretty. Any time you forge long established operating components and their unique cultures (e.g., Customs, FEMA, Secret Service, Coast Guard, etc.) together in an almost overnight fashion; give them a next-to-impossible mission (“make sure there are no bad days”); and micromanage and second guess every breath and movement they take (via a ridiculous amount of Congressional oversight); you can’t expect it to be a wonderland. It’s like multiple organ transplant surgeries without ever checking for blood type and donor matches. You wouldn’t normally do it, but if you’re desperate, you might try anything to survive.

In so many ways, the odds were relentlessly stacked against DHS from day one, but day in and day out more than 200,000 employees report to their jobs big and small, some pressure-filled and life-threatening, and others tedious and mundane, to protect us from threats known and unknown.

You can’t really blame the department’s employees for scoring where they work so low. Most of what they do is constantly mocked and derided by politicians, late night comedians and the regular public, who are often anything but appreciative or thankful for what they do. I’m not saying that we should enjoy having to take off our shoes at the airport and get a more revealing (and anonymous) photo taken of ourselves at the airport, or having to fill out another form for disaster assistance or verify our citizenship for employment. All of these things are hassles and certainly debatable in a range of instances, but I’m fairly sure the two words that DHS employees hear the least are “Thank you.”

When you’re not appreciated or for that matter even acknowledged, it’s hard to elevate your morale and self-esteem above subterranean levels. Hence the dreadful poll numbers.

FEMA kills graffiti

Detail of graffiti on a neighborhood grocery store in the 7th Ward, in 2008. Photo by Infrogmation of New Orleans

As for the environment in which DHS employees work, it is different from anything I had ever experienced before in either the public or private sectors. [Author’s note: I worked at DHS from 2003-2006.] The department has all of the pressures you might expect when you are trying to mitigate against every conceivable threat and an almost zero tolerance for any type of error or mistake that might happen when you’re on duty. One screw-up can ruin not just the whole day, but many lives as well. Try living and operating in that environment. That’s just one reason for the high turnover rate with employees of all levels.

As to the turnover rate among senior-level employees, it is a concern and recognized as such by the department’s leaders, its overlords (the 88-plus congressional committees with oversight responsibilities) and others. People leave their DHS positions for any number of reasons. They may be fed up with 70- to 80-plus hour weeks, cumbersome bureaucratic fights, and the stress of their job, or they may simply desire to find something far more suitable for their lifestyle and income. Those are all legitimate reasons. In fact they are the exact same reasons that people leave their positions in other public and private sectors all the time. When it happens at DHS it just seems to generate more anxiety and frustration, and for good reason.

We absolutely want to have stability and calm in critical positions every day of the year. Having a steady hand at the wheel when the swells and churn of the sea can roar to life at any instant is reassuring to everyone. When a new hand does take the wheel for whatever reason, we all look in question as to whether or not they are up to the task. What we’ve seen in most cases at DHS is that people have been up to the task and performed fairly well in often less than optimal conditions. No place is perfect, and perfection will never take up permanent residence anywhere in the government, let alone DHS.

One way to possibly address the low morale, and high turnover rates at DHS is what I will call “cross training.” When people take a job at DHS, or for that matter any other place, they often end up being siloed into one division or section for an extended period of time, if not their whole career. For me, that is a recipe for misery and disaster, because you end up only seeing the universe through one corner of the world. How dreadful is that?

If people were encouraged, (and at times pushed) to take on an assignment (and a new challenge) different from what they have done before, it would not only expand their professional skill sets, but further develop new relationships and help mission understanding to grow throughout the department. For example, someone at FEMA might take a year’s detail to ICE or CBP, and vice versa, and get a better understanding of what the other does. Or someone at Infrastructure Protection might go to Customs or TSA to work on vulnerability assessments, or vice versa.

Now it shouldn’t be a universal application to do this type of professional cross training. I certainly don’t think that the Secret Service agents protecting the president should be switched out with Coast Guard personnel operating a drug interdiction operation off the coast of Miami. There are institutional and operational skill sets that need to be applied and not compromised, but to build the “One DHS” that DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and her predecessors have tried to establish, silo-smashing of cultural components and team-building are essential.

Some of this “cross training” is already under way in the upper levels of the department, and it’s starting to permeate to lower levels. It certainly is not an overnight solution to all that ails the department, but it is a longer term tool to build identity, cohesiveness and scalable mission work at all levels.

Part Two – Political appointees and the department

Part Three – The personnel system, the pay and the confirmation process

Part Four – Clearances, confidence, respect & trust

By

Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-37967">

    It is a direct result of a leadership style that replaced esprit de corps and pride in your agency with rule by fear. And substituted individual’s judgement based on extensive training and experience with AI programs that must be obeyed reguardless of the “common sense” of a particular computer decision. After the 50th time you refer a black male to secondary on a warrant for a caucasion because it is a name and DOB close match, it is hard to justify all that money you spent for your college degree.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-steven-hoarn odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-37975">
    Steven Hoarn

    It isn’t just the opinion of DHS workers that makes DHS disliked, but also public opinion and perception. Having visited New Orleans briefly in the summer of 2005, I saw firsthand the hatred for FEMA. Many of the tacky souvenir shops in the French Quarter were selling t-shirts with expletives referencing FEMA printed on them. Maybe that kind of naked hatred toward DHS has died down in that part of the country, but I’m willing to bet it is at most just below the surface.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-39546">
    Anonymously Unknown

    I saw this post as I was riding Metro into work this morning and knew instantaneously I wanted to post a response. I’ve worked within several components of DHS for years as a federal government employee. Throughout my tenure I have observed a frightening conflict management style used amongst management at all levels. Though this conflict management style is classified as avoidance, I like to call it the “Out of Sight, Out of Mind Theory”. In addition, DHS, as whole does not exemplify unity. Though DHS HQ is the parental agency with 21-22 components, every one of these components to include HQ operate in their own fashion, at times refusing to collaborate with one another for the sake of “One DHS”. Agencies with legacy components and systems, are distrusting of allowing DHS HQ to oversee or govern any procurement or project that will result in everyone being on the same accord. The message, “If it’s not broke, why fix it?” or in their eyes, let DHS HQ mess things up. At the end of the day, there have meetings where components have walked out of collaborative efforts or sneakily done their own contracts, etc to avoid unifying with DHS HQ. Once someone of hierarchy has made the determination of how a program or contract will be executed, entertaining any discussions or alternative decisions will not occur, only when the program or contract fails, does an alternative need to be quickly implemented and again it’s the same decisions being made without thought or planning.
    DHS and its components are heavy supporters of hiring familiar people not based on their technical expertise. These problems have collectively resulted in a high turnover rate seen and felt throughout many of the DHS components. According to the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, DHS hired 8,125 new employees in 2010, of which 7,605 employees left, meaning DHS only increased their workforce by 520 persons (Best Places to Work 2011). It shouldn’t amaze anyone that out of 33 large agencies, the Department of Homeland Security has ranked number 31 since 2005. In some components associated with DHS, you can find husbands, wives, daughters, fathers, friends of the family, lovers, siblings, cousins, and next door neighbors all working within the same branch, division, organization, agency, etc. You will find certain persons in leadership, are fully aware of these instances and/or engaging in this unethical practice not having made any changes. The fact there is no union representation, allows leadership, who are ousted for engaging in unethical behavior to outcast anyone seeking to change this way of doing business, which is yet another reason DHS has a high turnover rate. As a result of many employees, seeing how easy an employee can become an outcast, bullied, or abused without help or refuge from anyone within the DHS community, especially with the “Out of Sight, Out of Mind Theory” by management, many choose to leave the agency altogether for a positive change and stress-free work environment. Many people seek employment within the federal government to make a difference, the pay, benefits and job security, but at the end of the day you have to weigh your options whether your health is worth the stress that you endure working for this agency and its components.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-steven-hoarn odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-42652">
    Steven Hoarn

    Have any readers seen the recent Gallup Poll (http://www.gallup.com/poll/156491/Americans-Views-TSA-Positive-Negative.aspx), which found that 54% of Americans think that the TSA is doing an excellent job? I know the TSA is one small, albeit important part of the Department of Homeland Security, but it does show that DHS is not an entirely thankless job. I would love to know if any readers agree or disagree with the poll respondents?

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-45628">

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