Big, Fast and Easily Bungled

Pity the poor Transportation Security Administration. It’s easy to sympathize with the plight of this beleaguered group of airport-safety people. Last year Congress handed the TSA an order to hire more than 55,000 workers in 10 months. The administrator, Admiral James Loy, and his staff were expected to produce a first-rate nationwide team to rid the country of terrorism virtually overnight. To accomplish the task, the agency set up a multiphase screening process and enlisted some outside vendors to help out. After extensive interviewing, the TSA had thousands of people at more than 400 commercial airports x-raying carry-on bags, asking people to remove their shoes and waving hand-wands at those unfortunate passengers who set metal detectors screaming.

    But things soured. The organization unwittingly hired a number of people with criminal backgrounds. As of May 31, the airport-protection agency had fired 1,208 screeners for what Loy, at a recent congressional hearing, called “suitability issues.” These mishires have caused an understandable ruckus among security-conscious citizens, and there have been some unhappy noises in Congress and in the press as well. Inadequate airport security was, of course, one of the factors that contributed to the 9/11 terrorist attack in the first place. The whole point of getting the agency quickly mobilized was to make airports safer.

   Then there was the issue of cost. With a 2003 TSA budget of $4.8 billion, the security agency recently was forced to cut 3,000 jobs and plans to lop off 3,000 more by September 30. Once this happens, its workforce will be trimmed by 11 percent, which should save $280 million. The agency’s problems with background checks and layoffs illustrate the troubles inherent in big, fast hires, particularly in a security-conscious environment.

Behind the screening
    To get a sense of the nature of the TSA project, consider the experience of Covenant Aviation Security in Bolingbrook, Illinois. On October 10, 2002, the privately owned security firm won a contract to provide screeners for the TSA’s pilot program at San Francisco International Airport. It was given 39 days to cobble together a workforce of 1,500 employees.

    “Of the 800-incumbent screening force, only 127 employees were rehired, requiring us to initiate several job fairs to identify qualified applicants,” says Jim Brown, CAS’s director of personnel and administration. “As a result, we received over 22,000 applications for slightly more than 1,400 remaining positions, so the key for us was a thorough and effective assessment process that helped us quickly identify and select the best applicants in a short period of time.”

    The rest of the process was like a steeplechase. Applicants had to prove that they were citizens and could meet the necessary federal requirements for employment. Then, Brown says, the people who passed the first stage “began a myriad of physical, psychological and medical assessments to determine if they could meet the federally mandated airport screening position requirements.” The assessments included computerized tests, structured interviews, medical evaluations, initial security checks and a drug test.

    Thirty-nine days later, the TSA was so pleased with CAS’s screening work that they asked the company to handle security operations at San Francisco International Airport and at Tupelo Regional Airport in Mississippi.

“HR experts believe there are employment tests and software to accomplish any task–including hiring 50,000 workers overnight.
It’s not only a fallacy, it’s a fraud.”

    Though no one would argue that undertaking such a massive hiring job is anything short of problematic, not everyone applauds the TSA process. Nick Corcodilos, whose Ask The Headhunter Newsletter addresses opinions on the subject, says that the agency’s employment predicament reveals a fundamental problem in the human resources industry. “HR experts believe there are employment tests and software to accomplish any task–including hiring 50,000 workers overnight. It’s not only a fallacy, it’s a fraud.” Corcodilos says that the TSA should have “hired more carefully and deliberately” and that “there is simply no excuse for hiring people with criminal backgrounds in such positions.”

    Corcodilos forces even the most sympathetic TSA-watcher to ask questions such as: “Why didn’t the TSA’s vendors warn the organization about the dangers of speed-hiring?” And “Shouldn’t the TSA have asked for a more realistic deadline?” But such speculations tend to evaporate in light of the country’s post-9/11 panic. Against this reality, it’s difficult to imagine the TSA appealing to Congress for extra time. “There is very little that TSA could have done differently and still meet the mandates given by Congress,” says TSA spokesman Robert Johnson.

    Udo Trutschel of Circadian Technologies, a consulting business in Lexington, Massachusetts, disagrees. “The staffing-level calculations are simply wrong.” He says that the TSA didn’t take into account the variable nature of security screening, which changes with different arrival and departure times, plane size and the general time of day. A similar accusation comes from Rep. Harold Rogers of Kentucky, a Republican congressman who recently told CBSnews.com: “TSA threw money at the employee and screening deadlines in a shotgun fashion and overhired.” To be fair, Trutschel acknowledges, the golden rule of scheduling–“Schedule people only at times and at places they are needed”–while seemingly straightforward, is in practice “difficult to put in place.”

Reality check
    Les Rosen, president and CEO of Employment Screening Resources in Novato, California, suggests that detractors of the TSA are too critical. “Before blaming anyone for anything, let’s do a reality check,” he says. “Contrary to popular belief, there is no super-secret government background-checking computer where employers can submit a name and instantly get a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.” Referring to the problems with reliability in conducting criminal-background checks, Rosen notes that official government rap sheets often have “statistically significant miss rates.” Moreover, he adds, “the difficulty is that there are some 10,000 courthouses in the United States spread out over approximately 3,200 state and federal jurisdictions, making finding a needle in a haystack easy by comparison.” He says that the agency’s “errors are not only possible, but also highly likely.”

    “Here is a sobering thought,” he notes. “If a 9/11 hijacker had faked a résumé in order to apply for a job in a sensitive industry, a criminal-record check may well have cleared him if he had not committed a crime in this country.”

    By the TSA’s account, it developed an effective background-check system to keep people with unsuitable backgrounds from becoming screeners. During the assessment process, candidates were fingerprinted and given the Questionnaire for Public Trust Positions. While candidates were being assessed, fingerprints were checked against a criminal database. Individuals who passed all tests at the assessment center and initial criminal-background checks were eligible to be offered conditional positions with TSA–conditional on the grounds that final background checks had not been completed. Next, the TSA hired a private company, ChoicePoint, to run criminal-history checks and verify references. Finally, TSA screeners went through the Office of Personnel Management investigation, a process that can take up to three months to complete for each individual, Johnson says.

    The agency has informed Congress that it will have all phases of the background-check process completed by October 1.

Avoiding trouble
    As the TSA example suggests, there are many ways to bungle a big, fast staffing job. But there are also ways around these problems. Rosen says that the key to safe hiring is diversity in screening methods. To begin with, applicants should be informed that lying about their background will have severe consequences. He also recommends that interviewers ask “a series of integrity questions routinely, designed to encourage applicants to be self-revealing.” For instance, an employer might say, “Do you have any concerns about having your background checked?” And Rosen insists on calling past employers.

    This “confirms the applicant’s qualifications, demonstrates due diligence and, most critically, lets an employer know where a person has been, so the employer knows where to search for criminal records.” Without such a background check, “you’re hiring a stranger with no verifiable past.”

    The TSA’s hiring dilemma probably would not have happened to a private company. Roy Bordes, International Council vice president of ASIS, an association of security professionals in Virginia, says that the TSA situation was highly unusual. “Private companies doing fast-paced, high-volume staff-ups will normally have the advantage of more time for the planning phase as well as the implementation phase,” he says. “There are very few companies in the nongovernmental side that would not have these benefits, especially time controls.” And, he says, the TSA staffing requirements were unusually large. “Very few companies have to hire 50,000 workers almost overnight.”

    Corcodilos simply advises the business community to avoid mass hiring. “You can’t cram 10 people through a metal detector all at once and expect to know who’s clean and who’s not. Not any more than you can hire 50,000 people all at once and expect you’re hiring the right people. It just doesn’t work that way.” Good hiring involves plenty of time, savvy recruiters and an open channel to good people all the time. He urges human resources executives to become “an active part of the community of people you will want to hire from.” The alternative, Corcodilos maintains, is “to drive by street corners and pick up anyone who wants to work.”

Workforce Management, August 2003, pp. 47-49Subscribe Now!