Agency may be incentivizing rank-and-file workers to engage in misbehavior, IG says.
An agency within the Homeland Security Department is creating the appearance of an unfair process for disciplining its top career employees, according to a new report, as it has exempted the executives from the adverse action process applied to other workers.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has created procedures and a table that sets a specific range of penalties for a wide swath of offenses for its workforce, but a DHS inspector general report released on Monday found they do not apply to the Senior Executive Service. The IG did not find specific examples of impropriety, but said ICE should set an example with its SES members.
“The need for accountability, fairness, and consistency is even greater when members of the SES, the leaders of the federal workforce, commit misconduct,” the IG said. “Employees often follow the example of their managers and senior leadership, and if they do not believe their leaders are held accountable for misconduct, employees may engage in similar behavior.”
The IG launched the investigation after receiving a tip alleging a former ICE senior executive had received “favorable treatment” during disciplinary proceedings. The investigators did not find any specific favorable treatment in that employee’s case, but did identify several structural issues with the SES disciplinary process at the agency.
ICE maintains “discipline and adverse action operating procedures,” which set the process for administering punishments to employees. While they were created specifically for all non-bargaining unit workers, the agency told the IG they do not apply to SES staff. Typically, a disciplinary panel would recommend a punishment and the head of the employee’s office would issue a final decision. For SES, however, the employee’s first-line supervisor replaces the panel and that individual’s boss serves as deciding official. ICE said that system would avoid employees on the disciplinary panel making disciplinary decisions for those more senior to them.
Even raising the perception of an unequal process can create problems in the workplace, the IG said.
“Carving out SES members from this policy in practice, without documenting a separate SES disciplinary policy designed to ensure fairness and consistency, creates the appearance of impropriety and special treatment, even if that is not the case,” the IG said.
In the case that prompted the review, however, the IG found no evidence of undue influence and the decision makers “offered legitimate and credible reasons for the outcomes.” Ultimately, the employee in question was demoted from the SES to a non-supervisory position and saw a pay reduction of about 11%.
In response to the report, ICE agreed to issue a new policy spelling out a more specific process for disciplining SES members.