By Steve Kelman

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Students demand 'tough love' for TSA screener

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.

Posted on Nov 03, 2011 at 7:27 PM

Reader Comments

Wed, Nov 16, 2011

@Melvin - I want to work where you do. In my organization, managers have a mandatory 5 day training that primarily focusses on how to write up and fire a career federal employee. Fortunately our Union gives the managers a tough way to go. Otherwise they would fire all the employees within 2 years of CSRS retirement and hire their sons, daughters, cousins, etc. I thought there were rules about Nepotism in the Federal Government but you'd never know it where I work. Maybe they are just prohibited from hiring uncles.

Tue, Nov 15, 2011 DT2

For all the posters that refer to lazy, unmotivated Government workers, please re-read the article. It says that he was "motivated by patriotism and commitment to the TSA mission" and that "he was still a committed employee, respected and liked by fellow screeners". Should he still be fired for making one mistake after 10 or so years of service? If so, it must be very interesting to be as perfect as you are.

Fri, Nov 4, 2011 Melvin

Look, this is simple. Even without having gone to the JFK School, I know the smart thing is to can the guy. Government people--and I sleep among them, even at work--will always, repeat always, cut themselves a break. Most managers at any level are brought up to shun firing, and often it is to ignore problems altogether. That has led us down the lilly-livered path to a slothful government, afraid to act and often unwilling to do the people's business. The employees --and contractors much less so--often believe that the government enterprise is run for them. Slightly smarter ones believe it is run for Congress. But the smartest know the govt is run for the citizens and taxpayers wherever they are--for the public good. The government is in a sorry state because it has accumulated all of the people it should have canned.

Fri, Nov 4, 2011 RAFinnigan Yuma AZ.

The case:
employee guarding secure area talking on his cellphone to his daughter- person gets into the area and disappears into the crowd, leading to lockdown until person is found.
Purpose teaching the case:
Engage discussion of how TSA management should design the screening 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.
What lapse? I understand TSA guard was gotten by - bad person who ignored signs and barriers did so is the problem, not the TSA guard.
What do you want? TSA guard to shoot the idiot?, Grab the fool? Fight the terrorist? TSA guard "pulled switch" to lockdown. Good enough.
I'd get by any/all gaurds too if I wanted to. Stop me from the ILS? I could take out the whole airport if I wanted to. Good topic, but really unknowledgable of your subject. Fire your stupid students.

Fri, Nov 4, 2011

Government work is not welfare and in many areas such as research and development, Ivy League degrees are not wasted as it appears to be insinuated. The other point is that none of us are perfect. We have all made mistakes in our lifetimes. The decision to terminate or punish should be based on the severity of the mistake, can it be mitigated and at what cost, employee past performance etc. To fire without evaluating all the circumstances would be poor management in both Government and Public Sector.

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