Washington, D.C.—A recent report advising the senior leaders at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on how to build the “culture” of the department fails because the input of front-line employees and their representatives was never sought. The report of the Homeland Security Culture Task Force, a segment of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, was delivered to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff in late January.
“It is extremely unfortunate that the task force apparently was never given the opportunity to hear the views of the actual employees tasked with carrying out the mission of DHS,” said President Colleen M. Kelley of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU).
“There is no one more familiar with the difficulties DHS is experiencing in building a single culture within the department than its own employees and these same employees are the ones who can point out the steps DHS ought to be taking to improve that situation,” Kelley added.
Since the creation of DHS, NTEU has attempted to work with management to overturn a series of poor decisions that have caused the morale of DHS employees to plummet to among the lowest in the federal government.
“Until DHS management starts addressing real-world workplace problems, it will be impossible to create the ‘blended’ culture it is seeking,” said President Kelley.
She offered these examples of workplace issues from DHS’s Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP):
• An employee awards program that is conducted in secret. NTEU won an arbitration decision that CBP unlawfully ended a joint labor-management awards program under the parties’ contract and implemented its own secretive awards program for fiscal 2005. The agency not only appealed the arbitration decision, but is using the same discredited program for fiscal 2006 awards.
• Personal appearance standards that have no merit. Unilaterally and without justification, CBP implemented appearance standards that required male employees to shave off beards, set strict limits concerning mustaches and sideburns, set strict standards for the length of men’s and women’s hair, and limits the amount and type of jewelry that can be worn on the job. An arbitrator rejected all CBP argued, and ordered it to rescind the standards until it had bargained with NTEU. CBP refused and appealed the arbitrator’s decision.
• For years, Customs Service employees who did not work in climate controlled airports were permitted to wear cargo shorts as part of the official uniform. Given that the work performed by CBP Officers can be hot and dirty, the shorts provided a measure of comfort for the employees and still retained a professional look. CBP wanted to limit the wearing of cargo shorts to only those employees in certain locales: for example, South Florida, San Juan, Laredo, El Paso, Tucson and San Diego. After two years of attempting to deny that benefit to other employees, CBP was forced by the Federal Service Impasses Panel to accept the NTEU idea.
“Forcing these unilateral policies on workers, policies that have no common sense, signals to employees that their professionalism, experience, and daily contributions are not valued. Nothing will doom an organization faster than ignoring the voices of its front-line employees,” President Kelley said. “And that is exactly what is happening at DHS.”
In announcing the release of the Culture Task Force report, DHS Deputy Secretary Michael P. Jackson told DHS employees in a memo that the group was charged with studying and suggesting a “strategy for creating a stronger common culture.” He added that the group had “delivered a set of recommendations for promoting a culture of excellence in DHS.”
President Kelley, however, was critical of several recommendations contained in the Culture Task Force report such as the idea that employees will be empowered if DHS stops using the term ‘human capital’ and begins referring to employees as ‘employees’ or ‘members.’
“This is exactly the sort of empty gesture that disappoints and angers employees and does nothing to eliminate real workplace issues and give voice to their concerns,” Kelley said.
Another recommendation that Kelley dismissed was that DHS hire additional outside contractors to “assist in the continuous development and sustainment of a mission-focused culture.”
“I cannot even imagine how hiring contractors would improve the culture of the department,” Kelley said.
NTEU is the largest independent federal union, representing some 150,000 employees in 30 agencies and departments, including more than 14,000 in CBP.