Friday, February 26, 2010

Workplace Morale Emergency

If I heard that some employees in a U.S. government office had expressed concern "that violence in the workplace could result because of the high levels of workplace animosity and tension," I would be surprised, but not disbelieving. There are some toxic workplaces, I know. But is one of them the State Department's Bureau of Public Affairs? Surely it's not that bad (?).

Here's today's WaPo story about a leaked 63-page report on morale problems (more like a morale emergency, from the sound of it) in the Bureau of Public affairs:

An internal State Department report says the agency's work in publicizing administration foreign policy and its relations with the media have been hurt by poor communication, lack of staffing and uneven leadership in the Bureau of Public Affairs.
A review by the department's inspector general found that some employees had been instructed not to return phone calls to reporters asking sensitive questions and that the environment in one office was so tense and hostile that several workers fear violence.

The report, which was completed last week, was obtained on Thursday by The Associated Press.

The 63-page document also found that the duties of some career employees in the press office had been transferred to political appointees, which contributed to low morale. The report was compiled last fall, months after Hillary Rodham Clinton took the helm at the State Department.

"It's a tough report," said P.J. Crowley, the assistant secretary of state for public affairs who runs the bureau. "What the report shows is that the bureau has many strengths, but it clearly has some organizational weaknesses that we are aggressively trying to correct."

He said corrective action had already been taken on about a third of the problems identified in the report.

The inspector general conducts periodic reviews of each department bureau. The work of the Bureau of Public Affairs is deemed critical to the administration's ability to communicate its foreign policy to the American taxpayer and foreign governments and their publics.

The review praised the skill and professionalism of the spokesmen - both career diplomats and political appointees - who brief reporters daily from the podium at the department's headquarters. It also lauded the bureau's attention to new media and its use of social networking platforms to get out the Obama administration's message.

But it said the operation needed better direction and that a senior front office position empty for more than a year should be filled immediately as its vacancy "contributes significantly to weak bureau management and low morale.
At lower levels, the report said the Office of Press Relations, which in previous administrations has been a primary channel for answering inquiries from the media, had lost much of its role because Clinton's team believed it was not effective.

"Thanks to a perfect storm of administration transition, weak leadership, miscues, misunderstanding, personality conflicts and poor communication, PRS has been marginalized," it said, referring to the press office by its acronym.

The report said the office also may have lost credibility because it had been instructed not to respond to certain questions from reporters.

"Under direction from the front office, PRS does not return some reporters' calls, for inquiries that are deemed sensitive," it said.

Crowley denied there was a policy to ignore certain reporters' phone calls but said in some cases inquiries would be passed along to the front office, adding that calls are returned.

The report's most damaging findings involve the Office of Broadcast Services, which produces and distributes audio and video content to worldwide media outlets. That office, it said, is beset by severe morale problems and hostility between employees and managers.

It said several employees expressed concern "that violence in the workplace could result because of the high levels of workplace animosity and tension." The report called for the current director of the office to be replaced.

Crowley acknowledged "a serious morale issue" in the office and said it was being addressed.

I'll have to see the report for myself before coming to any conclusions.

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