The TSA: A Lesson in Employment Risk

The Wall Street Journal had a great piece in their most recent weekend edition on “Why Airport Security is Broken – and How to Fix it.” I don’t care how much you travel; read this piece and you’ll find yourself nodding your head, gritting your teeth in frustration, and feeling somewhat vindicated that you’re not the only (level headed) person out there that believes the whole experience of getting past the TSA minions is enough to make you scream. Uggggghhhhh.

Kip Hawley, former head of the Transportation Security Administration, started off by suggesting “more than a decade after 9/11 it is a national embarrassment that our airport security system remains so hopelessly bureaucratic and disconnected from the people who it is meant to protect.” So tell us how you really feel, Kipper. Throughout the ensuing full-page of copy, Kip boils it all down to one thing: Risk and how you go about managing it. And as he did so, I thought about our (HR) jobs managing risk. The parallels were eerie.

1) First, understand your charge. Kim notes that “the TSA’s mission is to prevent catastrophic attack on the transportation system, not to ensure that every single passenger can avoid harm while travelling.” Hard to hear, but realistic and attainable. Your job as an HR professional is to help the organization create an environment that reasonably protects your employees from violations of law, policy, or safety. It is no more your job to entirely eliminate employment risk than it is the TSA’s to keep every single passenger safe.

2) Secondly, recognize that managing risk and enforcing regulations are NOT the same thing. He gives a fantastic example of how the bag screening process has turned into a veritable Easter-egg hunt…trying to catch each and every prohibited item along the way. “When [they] ran a test, putting dummy bomb components near lighters in bags at checkpoints, officers caught the lighters, not the bomb parts.” If that doesn’t drive home the importance of keeping the bigger picture in mind – while scaring the bejeezus out of you – I’m not sure what will. In no way – let me repeat, in no way – are you an enforcement officer; that role really doesn’t have a place in the workplace as far as I’m concerned.

3) Finally, one of the best ways to manage risk is to have direct interaction with the people who either contribute to or are victims of it. TSA agents have unfortunately become a mere extension of the scanners we already deploy – yelling at you to take your shoes off, digging through your toiletries, shuttling empty trays back and forth. What if they spent time using pattern-recognition skills (which they are apparently well trained in), interviewing passengers, keeping in touch and in tune with the pulse of the place? How often do we think we’ve covered our butts by simply keeping our employee handbook and break-room posters up to date? Ain’t gonna cut it. You have to be out there mixing and mingling – identifying those spots worthy of your attention and those that shouldn’t even be bothered with.

I understand why the TSA is there just as much as I understand why HR is there. They both serve terribly important purposes. But lost focus and misguided purposes are dangerous, frustrating, and ultimately divisive. Take it from the TSA…

Image Credit: Cajun Metal

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