By Tero Vesalainen /

Homeland Security Employees Aren’t Disciplined Consistently for Misconduct

Lengthy survey by watchdog faults vague definitions, poor record-keeping for the lack of standard consequences across agencies within the department.

Misconduct at the varied agencies within the massive Homeland Security Department—from sexual harassment to discrimination, to absences without leave, to credit card fraud to sleeping on the job—is not being addressed consistently, according to results of a large-scale employee survey released earlier this week.

The policy of the department created by merging 22 agencies following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks “does not include procedures for reporting allegations of misconduct, clear and specific supervisor roles and expectations, or clearly defined key discipline terms,” said the report from acting DHS Inspector General Jennifer Costello.

The department also lacks “data monitoring and metrics to gauge program performance,” the report said. It analyzed an online survey that went out to 192,495 employees in 2017 and garnered 54,108 responses.

“These deficiencies occurred because DHS’ Employee Relations office has limited staff, who do not believe they are responsible for managing the allegation process,” the report said. 

The overall results of the employee survey were “favorable,” the IG stressed, though they suggest a need for improved training and improved behavior by leaders.

“Without oversight through defined policies and program management,” the watchdog warned, “DHS cannot make informed decisions to improve the program and ensure all components manage the misconduct process consistently. Additionally, this shortcoming could lead to costly litigation due to inappropriate or unenforceable disciplinary determinations.”

Those inadequate policies also mean “the department cannot ensure it treats all employees equally or that components have properly addressed or referred all misconduct allegations.”

The survey asked respondents about specific actions taken by supervisors faced with misconduct, starting with verbal counseling, a letter of counseling, a letter of reprimand, suspension, demotion and removal. While the average reporting of the most serious step, removal, was 24% departmentwide, reported removals were 32% at the Transportation Security Administration. TSA was followed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (28%), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (26%), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (22%), and Customs and Border Protection (14%).

Similar variations appeared in the answer to the statement: "Senior leaders in my component are less likely to be disciplined for violating workplace rules, regulations." The portion of employees answering “agree” was 58% at TSA, 52% at CBP, 48% at ICE, 39% at FEMA and 35% at USCIS.

A key problem, the analysis said, is that the department’s policy “allows each component to develop and administer its own policy; however, Employee Relations has not ensured the components’ existing disciplinary policies are consistent with the department’s policy.” That policy, those officials said, lacks definitions because “additional definitions were not important or are already included in federal regulations.” And those performance standards require supervisors to “address conduct in a timely and appropriate manner and promptly address allegations with appropriate action.” Terms such as “timely” and “appropriate” are vague and interpreted differently, the report said.

DHS had “no departmentwide misconduct allegation data,” the report noted, even though between 2012 and 2016, seven Office of Inspector General, two Government Accountability Office, and three internal department or component reports identified issues related to DHS and component misconduct or disciplinary programs. In November 2016, Employee Relations issued its first directive and implementing instruction, which the survey attempted to evaluate.

In eight recommendations to Randolph Alles, acting deputy undersecretary for management, the IG proposed that Alles designate or establish an entity with sufficient size and authority to oversee the department’s entire misconduct process; ensure the designated entity implement a formal reporting process, with documented procedures for handling and reporting all misconduct allegations; and that the Chief Human Capital Officer revise the DHS Discipline and Adverse Actions Program directive and instruction to provide comprehensive guidance, including definitions for key misconduct terms and the use of alternative discipline.

DHS managers agreed.

The area of misconduct is only one of many challenges the department faces in creating a common culture among its component agencies with related but distinct missions. Information sharing and moving to a new headquarters have also been difficult.