The High Cost of Federal Workforce Depression

The Secret Service's problem isn't morals, it's morale.

Low employee morale adversely affects employee performance. When morale deteriorates, and it’s not addressed, at some point it transitions to what is best understood as workplace depression. This can happen when employees feel “overwhelmed, lost or fatigued as a result of excessive work demands,” says David Ulrich, one of the country’s experts on workforce issues. This also is a likely explanation for problems at the Secret Service.

Claims that the incidents are attributable to a dysfunctional culture are almost certainly off target. Organizational culture relates to a pattern of broadly accepted values and behaviors. But the incidents at the Secret Service are strikingly different and based on media reports appear to be a failure of agents deviating from expected behavior.

The Secret Service takes pride in telling the world that’s its culture is based on “five core values: justice, duty, courage, honesty and loyalty.” It’s highly doubtful that any agent would be supportive of what has happened over the past several years. The incidents are not related to the agency’s culture.

There is every reason to believe that when agents start their careers they are passionate about the job and fully accept the responsibilities. They start their careers with the drive to be a success. They are no doubt proud to be Secret Service agents. They learn what to expect and what’s expected of them, and they embrace the challenges. Presumably their sense of commitment continues throughout their careers.

But something has happened. Almost certainly the transgressions are attributable to the precipitous decline in morale over the past few years. Poor morale can be a cancer that slowly spreads and vitiates the commitment of even those who are seen as role models. The agency fell from 66th on the 2007 list of the Best Places to Work to 226 out of 300 in 2013.

The best way to understand the impact of that drop is to consider what research and anecdotal stories tell us about organizations with a high level of esprit de corps. There is a shared commitment to the organization’s success. Employees gain a high level of satisfaction from knowing they played a role in that success. They believe they are doing something important. The level of camaraderie and teamwork is high. They are willing to make sacrifices for the organization.

Where that’s true, employees typically perform at demonstrably higher levels. Research and anecdotal stories show that in a positive, supportive environment, employee performance can be as much as 30 percent to 40 percent higher than the norm. Workers enjoy being challenged and demonstrating their capabilities.

When morale is low, employees tend to lose their focus, are less attentive and diligent, withdraw and become less cooperative, and avoid responsibility. Everyone who interacts with a disgruntled employee recognizes the problem. It shows up as increases in common measures like absenteeism and grievances. The recently reported porn-watching at work is evidence of the problem. 

The recent events that changed federal agencies are sequestration and pay freezes. Secret Service staff reportedly is down by 500 employees since 2011, which in a 24/7 operation, necessitates longer work hours. In a more typical situation, when overtime is necessary, it’s for a short period of a few days or at most a week or two. When the long hours continue and there is no end in sight, it becomes demoralizing and can have a devastating impact on an employee’s life away from the job. There may be other factors as well.

Everyone wants to be treated fairly. In a work situation we all operate from what is referred to as a “psychological contract.” That contract defines the relationship between an employee and his or her supervisor. It covers what we expect from our employer and what’s expected of us. When that contract is breached, it’s a problem. Initially, employees see it as unfair—triggering grievances—and over time they become disenchanted or angry.

In the private sector, disgruntled employees quit. Turnover goes up as morale declines. Employees no longer have loyalty to an employer.

It’s not as simple in government, however. Especially at an agency like the Secret Service, employees have made a career commitment to the mission and agency. They are extremely reluctant to make the decision to quit midcareer. In fact, many would find it difficult to secure a job that pays as well. Their government experience does not translate easily, and often private employers are skeptical. Disgruntled employees and their agency would both benefit from their resignation.

In other sectors the human resources office would be expected to take a more active role in addressing these problems. In his book Human Resource Champions, Dave Ulrich defines four roles for HR executives. It’s unfortunate but HR specialists in government are largely precluded from one that would be directly relevant to building a better, more productive workplace. That is serving as an employee champion. The goal is to increase employee commitment and contribution. That involves assessing and developing initiatives to improve the work environment, supporting manager and employee development, and serving as a catalyst to help them perform at higher levels. In government there are far too many constraints to serve effectively as an employee champion.

The annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey suggests there are agencies in worse shape than the Secret Service. There no doubt are performance problems that fly under the media’s radar. Realistically, each agency should focus on its unique situation. Employees will need to be actively involved. Simply stated, they want to be valued and to work for highly regarded organizations. But winning the hearts and minds will require time and leadership.

In this stressful period, the country needs the commitment of federal employees. This problem should not be allowed to fester until the next president takes office. The cost of new problems could be very high.

Howard Risher managed compensation consulting practices for two national firms and has written four books, including Aligning Pay and Results. He has an MBA and Ph.D. from the Wharton School.

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