Survey: DHS employees enjoy work but view management warily

Undersecretary for Management Rafael Borras asked employees for more feedback. Undersecretary for Management Rafael Borras asked employees for more feedback. Homeland Security Department

Homeland Security Department employees enjoy their jobs and think their work is important, but they have doubts about the link between performance and incentives, according to results from an internal DHS survey.

"I'm proud to announce that the results reflect continued improvement as in 2007 and 2008," wrote Rafael Borras, DHS undersecretary for management, in a memo to department employees. "We will continue to perform a thorough analysis of results and will tailor action plans to address areas for improvement."

The survey, conducted between Oct. 30, and Dec. 22, 2009, included responses from 67,957 DHS employees. According to the department, respondents were generally representative of the overall DHS workforce, but the sample slightly overrepresented white employees and supervisors.

Only 24 percent of respondents said they agreed that pay raises within Homeland Security depend on employees' performance, and of that 24 percent, 6 percent strongly agreed with that opinion. Twenty-nine percent of respondents said job promotions in their work unit were merit-based, while 30 percent of survey participants agreed that performance differences were recognized in a meaningful way. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said awards in their work units were based on employee performance, and 30 percent reported that their supervisors were rewarded for managing the performance of their employees.

Employees also expressed concerns about a perceived prevalence of favoritism. Disputes between co-workers, whether peers or between management and rank-and-file employees, were resolved fairly, 36 percent of respondents said, while 9 percent agreed strongly with that statement. Thirty-five percent of respondents said their workplace did not tolerate arbitrary decision-making, favoritism or political coercion. Sixty percent of respondents said their performance appraisals fairly reflected their job performance.

"The critical responsibilities of this department require complete employee engagement so it is not productive to have employees believe that personnel decisions are based on arbitrary factors or personal favoritism," said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. "These results show an agency working to improve itself, but one that clearly still has a long way to go."

Performance management issues have been at the heart of several disputes between the young department and its federal employee unions. After a protracted battle, DHS withdrew its plans to implement a departmentwide pay-for-performance system in 2008. And the National Treasury Employees Union and the American Federation of Government Employees have made the Transportation Security Administration's pay-for-performance system an issue in their campaign to unionize workers at the agency.

Borras acknowledged the low scores on performance issues, and said action plans would address those and other areas. He urged department employees to participate in follow-ups to the survey, such as focus groups, to help shape DHS' response.

The results of the internal survey also suggested some ambivalence about other DHS human capital practices. Seventy-three percent of respondents said the department's workforce has the necessary knowledge and skills to carry out their tasks and accomplish the goals of their organization. But only 39 percent said their work unit was able to recruit people who had those important knowledge and skill sets.

Despite low scores in some areas, DHS employees appear satisfied with their specific jobs. Eighty-three percent reported job satisfaction, while 91 percent said they believed their work was important.

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