Supervisors at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the third-largest federal agency, are less likely to be disciplined than other employees in instances of alleged misconduct, according to the Government Accountability Office, an independent watchdog agency.

Supervisors received disciplinary or adverse action less frequently than non-supervisors, and the number of allegations involving a supervisor were higher than the proportion of supervisors working in each surveyed office, which included the Secret Service, Customs and Border Protection, Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, GAO said in a report.

The Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer “is not positioned to identify the reasons for the differences in disciplinary outcomes between supervisors and non-supervisors identified in our analyses because it does not collect the necessary supervisory data,” it said.

Merit-system principles are the bedrock of the federal workforce at Homeland Security and every other agency that employs civil servants working on behalf of the American people. It is these rules that define the public sector, and, in the ways they’re lettered, ensure workers are appointed, promoted and disciplined free from political influence or nepotism.

Politicking in Congress and on the 2024 presidential campaign trail has thrust this further into the forefront, as Republicans have called out several agencies for easing up on discipline, bloating the bureaucracy and politicizing government services under a Democratic “woke” agenda.

Donald Trump, the former president who is seeking reelection this year, and many of his supporters, including biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and current Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have praised the idea of slashing the federal workforce, either through mass layoffs or a system of reclassifying them to at-will employment status.

Unions, too, have broached concerns about the efficacy of the merit system, but have focused instead on defending the way it protects workers. Labor officials interviewed by GAO said having discrepancies in the way managers and rank-and-file staff experience the disciplinary process at DHS can sow mistrust among the workforce.

“Specifically, these officials told us they believe supervisors receive favorable treatment and more lenient penalties,” according to GAO.

Further, a 2021 Merit Systems Protection Board indicates 21% of the department’s non-supervisory workers think senior leaders “tolerate” unethical managers.

The report also found that a majority of alleged misconduct result in no or informal action, regardless of leadership level. About 75% of alleged cases at CBP and FEMA lacked a formal action, or one at all. The same was true for about 66% of reported incidents at USCIS.

In its response to the report, Homeland Security officials said the data relied upon in the study does not show whether alleged misconduct was, in fact, substantiated or founded. Thus, it’s not necessarily true that supervisors enjoy more relaxed standards for behavior, they said.

Further, officials noted discipline is likely to be taken once a case is proven to be substantial following an investigation.

Regardless, the department agreed to improve the specificity of its misconduct data and take a closer look at any differences in outcomes based on supervisory level.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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