Secret Service low morale

Reports of Secret Service low morale are a reminder that even the most dedicated employees can become disengaged. (Photo via flickr.com/aon, taken at the White House)


A failure of organizational design and of leadership to engage are the apparent root causes of low morale among employees in the U.S. Secret Service, according to a recent NPR story, “Ex-Agent Cites ‘Progressive Down Slide’ In Morale At Secret Service.”
On one hand, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Low morale is practically at epidemic levels around the U.S., with about two-thirds of Americans “not engaged” or “actively unengaged” at work. That makes Secret Service employees not so different from the rest of American workers.

Yet employees of the Secret Service aren’t Average Joe workers. They’re members of an elite and high-functioning team tasked with protecting the president, vice president and their families.
Still, the Secret Service rates in the bottom third in job satisfaction rankings within the federal government, according to NPR’s Brian Naylor.
It’s a reminder that even the best employees are susceptible to low morale when leadership puts them into a position for failure.

What happened?

Jonathan Wackrow, a former agent, told NPR that Secret Service low morale can be traced back to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In response to the terrorist attacks, the Secret Service was transferred from the relatively small Treasury Department to the newly created Department of Homeland Security.
Suddenly, it became one of 22 agencies thrown together into a huge bureaucracy.
“We have to fight internally for money and resources against issues of immigration, issues that arise with the Coast Guard and other homeland security issues,” Wackrow told NPR. “So for us to try to have a voice in that sea of confusion sometimes is very difficult for our managers.”
Members of Congress are currently looking into recent security lapses at the White House and whether a stretched-thin Secret Service is to blame.
Whatever answers this investigation finds, reports of Secret Service low morale are a cautionary tale for top leadership everywhere.

Why Organizational Design Matters

Moving the Secret Service from the Treasury Department to Homeland Security had several unintended consequences. More than a decade later, employees:

  • Compete for priority
  • Compete for resources
  • Are mired in a sprawling bureaucracy

The Secret Service had been a star agency at the Treasury Department. Now, it’s floundering in an organizational structure that doesn’t appear to be serving it well. Under Homeland Security, agencies with vastly different goals and needs struggle to get their voices heard.
Meanwhile, “the Secret Service mission pretty much stayed the same, unlike some of the other agencies that were brought over,” Mickey Nelson, former Secret Service assistant director, told NPR.

Why Leadership Needs to Be One Step Ahead

Secret Service low morale could have been prevented, with or without the move to Homeland Security. The insights of former managers reveal the apparent failure of top leadership to anticipate the impact of organizational design on the agency.
How would the Secret Service look today if leadership had:

  • Provided the training and support needed for a successful transition?
  • Engaged, involved and worked closely with managers to maintain cohesion?
  • Reinforced morale in top talent by making them feel unique, valued and appreciated?
  • Eliminated budget barriers so employees could focus on their work?
  • Protected managers from bureaucracy?

“Ineffective or inconsistent leadership/management is the most common root cause of low morale. The work environment and culture of the team is often a reflection of the approach of the senior manager within an organization,” writes Lower Extremity Review’s Jason Kraus, in an article about the link between morale and productivity.
Change in organizational design is inevitable over the course of a company’s lifespan. Great leaders plan ahead and help their employees stay focused, engaged and happy regardless of the business climate.
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