Everybody Deserves Workplace Respect – Even the T.S.A.


As somebody who flies about 75,000 miles a year, I am far too acquainted with the Transportation Security Administration and their annoyances (to the passenger) and their documented shortcomings (in their effectiveness).

That said, everybody deserves a workplace where they are treated with respect, even our blue-shirted friends that frequent flyers love to roll their eyes at.

A recent New York Times article (“Unions Woo Airport Security Screeners“)  caught my eye, not just because of the unionization question, but the question of respectful workplace dynamics.

One TSA worker says the following:

Justin Bourque, a former Army corporal and now a behavior detection officer at Newark, said T.S.A. workers were not treated with respect.

“I was treated with more respect and more like an adult when I was in the military, where I had no rights,” he said, complaining that when a worker made a mistake, there was no effort to retrain, often just a blanket admonition not to repeat the error. “The management staff treats us like we're children.”

The past paragraph, sadly sounds like many workplaces, including in healthcare, where there are many “be careful” admonitions that are ineffective and could make people, likewise feel disrespected.

There are other complaints from TSA workers, including unclear or unequal rules about sick leave, work shift assignments, and accusations of favoritism from supervisors regarding important thing like determining pay raises.

I forget the source of the statement, but one thing I've heard many times in my management career is that “companies get the unions they deserve,” meaning that companies that treat their employees the worst tend to get saddled with the most combative unions. The UAW has its roots in the days when the “Big Three” treated workers terribly, including Henry Ford's infamous security forces.

Not that Toyota has a perfect workplace, but the company has been able to avoid unionization by paying the equivalent of UAW wages and I'm sure the company's long-standing “respect for people” philosophy goes a long way toward creating a workplace that seems more fair and less prone to unionization.

Looking at both sides of the T.S.A. issue, unionization is not surprisingly polarized on party lines. The Obama administration argues that unionization would improve morale. I can believe the argument that performance MIGHT improve, given correlations between staff engagement and patient safety in healthcare. Happy employees tend to lead to good results.

That said, I know many public-sector workers (primarily teachers) who found their union to be a huge source of frustration, as there was often favoritism in terms of union politics (is that better than favoritism from managers?).

Republicans argue that unions will increase costs. We often see that unionized workplaces have far less flexibility in terms of who can do what job, depending on terms of the collective bargaining agreement. Not all union contracts are as inflexible as the old ones that really saddled the Big Three (look at Saturn had or some more progressive auto industry contracts).

As taxpayers, I think we should demand cost-effective (and flat out effective) services. We should demand that “evidence-based management” practices (as the author Dan Pink calls it) be used. We should demand that management practices and the culture of the T.S.A. and other government agencies avoid the unfairness and mistreatment that leave things open to a “yes” vote on unionization.

As another T.S.A. worker said, they “don't have any voice on the job.”

Giving workers a voice on the job is a key aspect of Lean and the “respect for people” principle. Maybe things are too late for the T.S.A. – maybe the poor morale ship has sailed and maybe unionization is inevitable (especially under a Democratic administration that receives huge donations from unions).

A union leader said they want “fairness and transparency and not a workplace that is driven by favoritism or who you know.” It's too bad the T.S.A. couldn't have used Lean management principles to get there from the get go.

It's too bad every workplace can't be one where everyone has a voice, breeding employee engagement, satisfaction, and improvement that benefits customers (patients) and all stakeholders.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Hi Mark,

    I firmly believe that management/owners get the union that they deserve. I’ve seen it too often. It’s a pity, because if and when management finally “gets it,” the cultural turnaround degree of difficulty has gone up three-fold once a union has become a permanent fixture. Everyone loses.

    Humility and respect for the worker has to be a first principle.

  2. Interesting post, Mark.

    As an all too frequent flyer, I see the TSA at various airports at various times, and there is a lack of Standard Work and a genuine lack of respect for the workers. Travelers do not respect the agents because there seems to be little sense to all of the things being demanded of them and there is rarely a meaningful explanation of why certain things are being required.

    The greater disrespect is between the Supervisors and the agents and the Manager and the Supervisors. I have seen one on one confrontations in front of travelers and co-workers that would have gotten any of us fired from shop floors.

    The agents are treated with disdain and a lack of respect from all sides. Mix the behavior driven from the lack of respect with the lack of preparation many people exhibit as they hurry toward their plane, and it is a terrible process that does not yield consistent results. We have six year old girls being patted down and people walking through with guns and ammunition. Neither is an example of a desired outcome and none of this makes us more secure as we fly.

  3. Great post and agree 110%

    Besides getting the union you deserve, I also believe (and see in my industry) getting the regulators you deserve.

    We have some very annoying ones with a very poor grasp on how the industry works – but at the end of the day they get the opportunity to make inane findings in investigations because we give them that opportunity by messing up the basics.

    Just like the healthcare examples – if you mess up the epidural with a sterlizing agent rather than anesthetic, you can expect an avalanche of learned committees and know-it-alls to tell you you shouldn’t have done that. If on the other hand, you have a lean, problem solving, error preventing culture, you could engineer out these problems while building staff ownership and capability, and you’d see less of the crackpot committees and know-it-alls.

  4. Mark,

    As we so often struggle with: focus on the process, not the people. A people-focused problem-solving approach leads to poor morale, which leads to poor customer service. A process-focused problem-solving approach, done correctly, leads to resolution by improving the process, involving and engaging the employee, thereby creating a culture of improvement and customer satisfaction.

    To steal frim Einstein, it is our current patterns of thought that have created our problems. To resolve our problems, we must change our patterns of thought (from “traditional” leadership to “servant” leadership).

  5. See this link:


    …a 2008 report from Richard Skinner, who was then inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, found that low morale among staff was causing a 17 percent voluntary attrition rate. Employees also reported “lack of trust, fear of retaliation, authoritarian management style, mistreatment and disrespect.” To address such issues, the TSA created IdeaFactory, a site where employees can offer suggestions for improvement.

    Trying to get employee suggestions is tough when you have an environment of fear, mistrust, and authoritarianism.


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