TSA employees give management low marks

Transportation Security Administration employees gave agency management low marks for recognizing and rewarding performance and encouraging creativity and fairness in the workplace, according to a 2008 internal survey TSA conducted and the American Federation of Government Employees recently released.

From April 29 to June 27 of last year, 16,116 agency employees responded to the survey. Of that total, 21 percent of respondents said the process for rewarding and recognizing employees was fair, with 29 percent reporting that pay raises depend on job performance. Twenty-one percent of employees surveyed said the promotions process was fair and transparent, and 25 percent said differences in performance were recognized in a meaningful way.

The results, compiled by TSA's Office of Human Capital, were an improvement from previous years. In 2006, the first year the question was asked, 18 percent said the rewards and recognition process was fair, and in 2004, only 8 percent of TSA employees said pay depended on performance. In 2006, 17 percent of employees surveyed said the promotions process was fair, and 20 percent believed differences in job performance were recognized.

"We're looking to see the trends continue up," said Elizabeth Buchanan, TSA's deputy assistant administrator for human capital. "I'm not sure there's some absolute value we'd like to get to."

A disclaimer noted that survey results were for official use only. Government Executive obtained the survey documents from AFGE, which, along with the National Treasury Employees Union, is organizing TSA workers to obtain collective bargaining rights.

TSA is not the only agency that has received mediocre scores on some of these questions. In the 2008 Federal Human Capital Survey, 28.5 percent of respondents governmentwide said they agreed or strongly agreed that pay raises depend on how well employees perform their jobs, a half of a point lower than TSA's score in the internal survey.

Buchanan said the 2008 survey did not reflect all the changes that have been made to TSA's pay-for-performance system, and she believes the next survey will provide more meaningful data on pay perceptions.

The 2008 respondents were more satisfied with benefits than with pay, with 36 percent saying they thought their salaries were fair and competitive with similar jobs in other fields, while 62 percent said their benefits "have a strong impact" on their decisions to stay at the agency.

Bill Lyons, a national organizer for AFGE involved with the union's efforts to organize TSA workers, said employee perceptions of arbitrary enforcement of pay and work rules were due partly to lax oversight by TSA of airport federal security directors.

"One officer said to me, 'Bill, I walk into the airport every day and it's like I'm walking into Pandora's box. I don't know what's going to be there,' " Lyons said. "The federal security directors, I believe they each think their airport is their own little empire, and [their attitude is] 'I can do whatever I want to do, whatever the directive is coming out of D.C.' "

Half the survey's respondents said their supervisor or team leader gave them useful suggestions for improving job performance, but only 38 percent said those supervisors modeled fair, inclusive and transparent behaviors themselves.

Buchanan said she hoped some new programs would improve perceptions of management and consistent enforcement of agency directives. About 60 percent of the TSA workforce has participated in two training programs called COACH and ENGAGE, which aim to improve employees' confidence and increase the strength of communication between security officers and their supervisors.

She also noted that a new peer review program, which has been launched in the nation's largest airports, already has addressed 32 cases in which employees felt they were being treated unfairly by management. As part of the program, panels of three peer employees and two supervisors hear complaints. If they conclude that an employee has been treated unfairly, they can overturn a federal security director's decision. Buchanan said TSA planned to roll out the program at all airports, but was still figuring out the time frame.

Those initiatives are designed to address a gap in perception between how TSA employees feel about their work, and how they think the agency views them. Ninety-four percent of survey respondents said their work is important, but only 22 percent said they feel personally empowered on the job and 48 percent believed TSA values their work.

Despite those frustrations, 66 percent of respondents reported that they were proud to work for TSA, and 64 percent registered overall job satisfaction. Seventy-eight percent of respondents said they were likely to stay at TSA for another year, and only 6 percent said they were likely to retire by the middle of 2009.

"A lot of people took this job out of wanting to dedicate themselves to the mission of protecting and serving the flying public," Lyons said. "They look at it as a way of serving their country."

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