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SHRM Advises Homeland Security to 'Focus on People Infrastructure'

By Roy Maurer  3/27/2012
Jeff T. H. Pon, Ph.D., HCS


During a congressional hearing on poor employee morale at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on March 22, 2012, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) emphasized leadership development, a standard HR body of knowledge and a clear vision as imperatives to engage employees.

“The gold standard is to move employee satisfaction to the higher plane of engagement,” said Jeff T. H. Pon, Ph.D., HCS, SHRM’s chief human resources and strategy officer. “That’s when people find meaning in their work. It’s when they stop watching the clock and start embracing their role in moving the organization forward,” he told the House Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management in Washington, D.C.

Pon advised DHS to focus on people infrastructure and to provide resources to develop managerial talent, noting that “people leave jobs because of managers and supervisors.”

A ‘Bad Report Card’

Calling the DHS employee satisfaction rankings a “bad report card,” Rep. Michael T. McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the subcommittee, asked: “What does it say when only 37 percent of DHS employees believe senior leaders motivate them and only 37 percent are satisfied with their senior leaders’ policies and practices?”

McCaul cited the Federal Viewpoint Survey, conducted annually by the Office of Personnel Management, which found that DHS ranked 33rd out of 37 agencies for job satisfaction in 2011.

DHS also ranked among the lowest of large agencies on worker satisfaction, according to the annual Partnership for Public Service Best Places to Work Survey. DHS came in 31st of 33 large agencies overall and last in the categories of “effective leadership” and “family friendly culture and benefits.”

Among the worst-reviewed agencies overall were the department’s Transportation Security Administration (ranked 227 of 228) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (ranked 223 of 228).

“Simply put, the Department of Homeland Security has a morale problem,” McCaul said, adding that because the DHS mission is the safety and security of the country, “this is unacceptable.”

Pon, a former chief human capital officer for the U.S. Department of Energy, a department that went through a consolidation process in 1977 similar to the one DHS has experienced since its creation in 2003, related that he knew firsthand from his private-sector experience the domino-like effect that low morale has on loyalty, engagement and productivity.

“I have transformed workplaces with challenges like those at DHS,” he said. “The roller coaster of employee morale is a governmentwide issue, not one unique to DHS.”

Pon said that a failure to integrate agencies properly, whether in the public or private sector, will lead to a lack of coordination, increased duplication, slower communication and decision-making, and confusion about the organization’s purpose.

Referendum on Leadership

“The solution must come from the top,” said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., the ranking member on the full committee.

“Unfortunately, the position responsible for establishing human capital priorities, recommending program improvements and implementing corrective actions—the chief human capital officer—has seen one of the highest turnover rates out of all department leadership positions,” he said.

DHS has had eight top personnel managers since 2003, Thompson added, with most lasting barely a year.

Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, testified that a change in work culture must come from the top. “That’s a challenge when political appointees come and go with elections.” Stier said converting some chief management positions to career positions or term appointments would ensure greater stability.

“Policy can change, but managers stay there to ensure the organization has the capacity to perform,” Stier said.

Stier pointed to research showing that leadership is the No. 1 driver of employee engagement, “which is true even more for senior leaders than for front-line supervisors,” he added. He praised the Department of Transportation and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. for improving their standings as best places to work through leadership by Ray LaHood and Sheila Bair, respectively.

Catherine V. Emerson, the chief human capital officer at DHS, defended the department, saying DHS was dedicated to employee engagement. “The department has a strong and broadly framed project to improve morale,” she said, referring to DHS’ multi-pronged effort under the heading “One DHS.” The project focuses on prioritizing employee engagement and features establishing an Employee Engagement Executive Steering Committee; improving employee communication and training; emphasizing diversity, inclusion and employee recognition; and strengthening the leadership skills of DHS managers, she said.

A top priority is the Cornerstone training program for front-line managers, which will show results by the end of this fiscal year, Emerson said. Another training program, called Capstone, involves 20 executives.

“With this concerted and comprehensive approach, I expect to see DHS improve its Employee Viewpoint Survey scores in the coming years,” she said. “The correlation between morale and employees’ need to feel connected to their leadership and to feel valued are unmistakable links to improving our overall scores,” she stated.

Emerson chairs the Employee Engagement Steering Committee. The committee has begun to collect best practices in employee engagement, and it will continue to provide ideas to DHS management to foster engagement and to survey DHS employees on issues they face, according to Emerson’s written testimony.

DHS is centralizing its learning management systems to provide standardized training to its employees and create more of a unified culture, Emerson noted.

Pon echoed the importance of standardized human resource practices.

Many chief human resource officers don’t have HR qualifications and didn’t grow in HR functions, he said. “With SHRM, what we’re trying to do, not only in the government but in the private sector too, is make sure that the standards of practice are well-known and make sure that HR has a body of knowledge and practices that can be certified.”

Vision Statement

“Morale is not an objective to be achieved in an organization. It is rather the natural byproduct of high-performing people and organizations,” testified Thad Allen, a senior vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton and former commandant of the Coast Guard, a DHS agency. “When there is a shared vision of the mission, commitment to the shared values of an organization and strong and effective leadership that enables employees to be successful, morale ‘happens.’

Pon echoed that statement, saying that because of integration challenges, DHS might be seen by some employees as lacking a clear and unified mission. He urged that DHS create a vision for the organization. “A vision should state what the organization aspires to be,” he said. “It should inspire—and touch the hearts of—all employees.”

A successful culture change can happen at DHS, and SHRM stands ready to help, Pon told the subcommittee. “By re-imagining and redesigning its workplace, the department can transform the present and plan for the future,” he said.

Roy Maurer is a staff writer for SHRM.

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