Is the Key to Improving Federal Workforce Morale to Stop Discussing It?

"Those who keep telling my workforce that 'you have low morale' are not helping, frankly," DHS chief Jeh Johnson told lawmakers. "Those who keep telling my workforce that 'you have low morale' are not helping, frankly," DHS chief Jeh Johnson told lawmakers. Barry Bahler/DHS

The best way to get rid of low morale is to stop talking about low morale.

That is according to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who heads the department ranked the worst place to work of any large agency in the federal government.

“I have discovered that as a leader of an organization of 225,000 people, one of the ways to ensure that we continue to have low morale is to continue to say to my workforce that ‘you have low morale,’ ” Johnson told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

The secretary added he is on an “aggressive campaign” to “improve the experience” of those working at DHS. Part of that process will be increasing transparency in promotions and awards. He also proposed boosting mentoring experiences and giving more pay to immigration enforcement personnel.

Republican lawmakers took issue with Johnson’s explanation, arguing the low satisfaction ratings among DHS employees have nothing to do with pay or rhetoric, but instead stem from the inability to enforce the laws on the books.

“Their problem has not been pay, though I’m sure they’d like to have more pay,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. “Their fundamental problem is they are not being supported. If they enforce the law and do what the law says, their supervisor tells them not to do so.” Sessions was referring to what he views as lax enforcement of immigration laws under the Obama administration.

“Their morale is in the tank,” Sessions said. “They are not happy with what is going on.”

The secretary responded that he did not believe his employees had low morale, as they are committed to their mission and are willing to work overtime to get the job done.

“Those who keep telling my workforce that ‘you have low morale’ are not helping, frankly,” he reiterated. A House panel held a hearing earlier in April to address morale problems at DHS and other agencies; before that hearing, Johnson asked subcommittee members privately to stop talking about the issue.

Johnson said some efforts to boost morale -- including the pay raise for immigration officers --would require assistance from Congress. Rather than finding agreement on those priorities, Johnson spent most of his time defending the immigration and border enforcement policies of the administration. Johnson insisted the programs on the books are working, but he was still committed to making the department “a more effective and efficient place.”

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., praised the work of DHS employees, calling them “vital” and “dedicated civil servants.”

“I salute them,” Schumer said. “And certainly questions should be asked, but let’s not forget to give credit where credit is due.” 

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