Students demand 'tough love' for TSA screener

Should a dedicated public servant who makes a mistake get a second chance? Steve Kelman's students give a surprising answer.

I recently used a case in my management and leadership class for first-year master's students at the Kennedy School about a screener at TSA in Logan Airport in Boston. (I understand from the author of the case at Harvard Business School that it is based on a true story, but not fully accurate as recounted.)
The screener joined TSA right after 9/11, motivated by patriotism and commitment to the TSA mission. At the time of his indiscretion several years later, he was still a committed employee, respected and liked by fellow screeners.

The case my students read: The employee is guarding the entrance to a secure area when, while he is talking on his cellphone to his young daughter ,a person gets into the secure area and disappears into the crowd, leading to a lockdown at the airport for 40 minutes until the person is found.
My main purpose in teaching the case was to engage the students in a discussion of how TSA management should design the screening function and environment to encourage and nurture better performance, based on employee support for TSA's public-service mission. But in the context of this, I also wanted to talk with the students about how to handle an individual employee's lapse. I asked them to consider whether punishing a mission-committed employee would send a bad signal to the workforce. Or would it perhaps be a kind of "tough love" that was necessary to show the organization's commitment to the mission?
To my surprise, about 60% of the students were for firing the employee (something that TSA's statute, which frees the agency from Title 5 civil service protections, allows the agency to do relatively easily). Out of a class of 50, two or three students wanted to give the employee counseling or additional training. Others proposed to suspend him without pay for some period of time.
This reaction from my students is consistent with attitudes in other human resources contexts that students have expressed in past years. Whenever the topic comes up in class, most of my master's students express support for pay for performance in federal workplaces. It is my impression, based on various discussions over the years, that many of the students are critical of government workplaces for being too "soft" and not performance-oriented enough.
Some readers will certainly assume that the students are reacting this way because they are snotty Harvard students with some sense of superiority. Putting the same statement in a more positive light, I think these student reactions do support findings in other research that -- perhaps not surprisingly -- smart and highly motivated employees are more attracted to workplaces that set high demands and reward high performance. The flip side of that is that if you have a workplace that doesn't do these things, you will attract less smart or highly motivated employees.
Clearly it is unrealistic -- and undesirable for that matter -- to aim for a federal civil service workforce of Ivy League students. But government does crucial work for our society, and if government can't attract a share of the smartest and most-motivated kids, it is not going to be able to perform that work as well. This is another reason why friends of good government need to be engaged in creating federal workplaces with a performance-oriented culture.