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Watching the detectives

first_imgWatching the detectivesOn 6 Feb 2001 in Personnel Today Related posts:No related photos. Itmight be the world’s most famous crime fighting force but the FBI is also anemployer, and in the robust US economy it finds itself facing the same humanresources issues as more conventional organisationsEff-bee-aye.”The acronym, pronounced almost as if it is a phrase, is one of the most famousin America if not the world. In movies, newsreels and our collectiveimagination, these three letters are usually accompanied by the proud displayof a badge which reassures respectable citizens and strikes fear into thehearts of, as the Thirties cartoon serials would say, evildoers everywhere.Butthese are strange times for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Bureau,once the epitome of buttoned-up respectability, has had to live with thepossibility that J Edgar Hoover, the director with whom the it is still mostclosely identified, and after whom its head office is named, may have been atransvestite homosexual. His idea of a good time, it is said, was to slip on ablack dress, slap on some make up, and turn up at parties frequented byorganised crime figures who would be instructed to address this pillar ofpublic rectitude as “Mary”.Withall the hype, it is sometimes easy to forget that the FBI is, like many lessfamous organisations, also just another employer. And R Stanley Harris, thesection chief for personnel resources, says the Bureau has to cope with many ofthe same problems as other big employers. “We still have more applicantsthan we have positions,” he tells Personnel Today, “but we are notimmune to the pressures of what has been, for the last eight or nine years, avery robust economy. And, especially when we try to fill specialist positions,we find ourselves competing for scarce talent with the likes of IBM andMicrosoft.”UnlikeBill Gates, the FBI also has certain physical standards that make it harder torecruit agents. For example, an agent’s uncorrected vision must be no worsethan 20/200 and there are also stipulations about hearing and colour blindness.At the same time it also insists that recruits will not have taken marijuana inthe past five years or steroids since 1991.Asof 30 November 2000, the FBI had 16,105 support employees and 11,412 specialagents which means the real life counterparts of Fox Mulder and Dana Scullyform more than 40 per cent of the Bureau’s workforce. Almost alone among publicorganisations in the US, the FBI has been relatively immune to the pressures ofcost cutting. While the total federal government workforce fell by 18 per centduring President Clinton’s eight years in office, the percentage increase inFBI employees is about 14 per cent. Part of this has been the growth in whatthe FBI calls intelligence officers who now number more than 1,000.LifeexperienceButsurely the Bureau’s constant exposure in series like the X Files and movieslike Men in Black and Silence of the Lambs must help recruitment? Harrisadmits, “We do get much interest through the Internet and the post butmany applicants may want to work on X Files or become profilers and we have toassess their motivation in applying.” Indeed, one of the count- less youngAmericans inspired to apply for a job as an FBI agent was the young RichardNixon who was turned down in 1937, because, records suggest, he was deemed notto be aggressive enough.Althoughits agents, Mulder and Scully apart, are often portrayed as white-shirtedbureaucratic clones, the Bureau does its best to ensure applicants have someexperience of real life. They are not eligible to apply until aged 23, forexample, and typically, you will have a degree in law, accountancy or languagesand have held down a job for at least a year. The application process is notfor the faint-hearted (or those unwilling to take a polygraph) but Harris saysthat in no way does it resemble a witch-hunt. “We do not visit the sins ofthe parents on the children, so whether your father was a member of theCommunist Party is less relevant than whether you have the integrity andquality we require to do the job,” says Harris. That said, he adds,”Everybody who works for the FBI, be they support staff or agents, have tobe able to be given clearance to handle top secret material.”Thereis a background check where FBI agents follow an applicant’s paper trail (fordetails such as any criminal record) and interviewing current and ex-employers.But as one agent, Doug Rhoads, stresses, “The biggest reason applicantsare knocked out isn’t because they have been selling drugs it’s because theiremployees said they didn’t perform as well as applicants believe theydid.”TheBureau’s biggest recruitment problem is still with ethnic minorities, whichHarris admits is not surprising given the “negative publicity” theFBI has had in this area over the years. In the 1960s, the Bureau had oneoperation, Cointelpro, devoted largely to bugging black civil rights leadersand at Hoover’s behest, tapes of Martin Luther King’s extra-marital dallianceswere circulated to various people including King’s wife Coretta. He alsorefused to appoint more than a handful of black agents. When attorney generalRobert Kennedy asked Hoover in 1960 how many black agents the FBI empl-oyed,there was uproar because, as one agent recalled, if you ignored Hoover’s officeboy and chauffeur, there were none.Harrissays, “We go to great lengths to get the word out to communities where wehave not been strong. Ideally, the Bureau should be a fair representation ofthe society it serves.” That ideal isn’t quite being delivered although tobe fair, the FBI has come a long way from the Hoover years when, in 1962, thenumber of black agents stood at 10. As late as 1977, that number had risen toonly 300. In March 1998, the FBI employed 640 black agents (5.7 per cent of thetotal), 787 hispanic agents (7.0 per cent) and 1,777 female agents (15.8 percent of the total). The split is more even among support personnel with 22 percent of that group being black and 67.9 per cent being female.LandmarksettlementsPerhapssurprisingly, the Bureau does not practice positive discrimination. “Wemake special efforts to make sure we get as wide a range of applicants aspossible in terms of ethnic background, gender and sexual orientation,”says Harris, “but every applicant is treated equally.”Twolandmark settlements have reinforced the FBI’s drive to improve its performanceon ethnic issues. In 1990 the Bureau settled a case by a hispanic agentalleging that he and his colleagues were being discriminated against forpromotion and confined to the “taco circuit” in the south-westernstates. Three years later, another settlement with a group of agents calledBadge (Black Agents Don’t Get Equality) led to a federal judge monitoring theFBI’s personnel practices. In 1993 the Bureau agreed, in response to anothersuit, that homosexuality would no longer be regarded as a form of misconduct.Underpresent director Louis Freeh, appointed for a 10-year term in 1993, the FBI haspublicly insisted that its “very, very bad historical track record”must come to an end. Back in 1990, when FBI staff were surveyed, 26 per centsaid they had seen sexual or racial discrimination in the workplace. The Officeof Professional Responsibility is charged with making sure the workforcedoesn’t let the Bureau down and in 1999 it investigated just five cases ofsexual harassment or misconduct, down from 21 the previous year. Last year oneagent was dismissed after the OPR found he had been driving under the influenceof alcohol while on duty.TheFBI has since beefed up its employment opportunity affairs office toinvestigate complaints and revised its selection procedures to try to removeany kind of bias. Last year, in a move which suggested that the Bureau reallywas confronting the darkest part of the Hoover legacy, Freeh announced that allnew agents would be trained in the lessons of the holocaust in general and therole played by law enforcement in that tragedy.Inthat 1990 survey, most FBI staff said they were dissatisfied with the Bureau’spersonnel policies, suggesting that, despite valiant effort, all traces ofHooverism had not been eradicated. But morale at the FBI in his later years wasmuch lower than the public realised: former agent William Turner says turnoveramong support staff in 1970 was 30 per cent – astonishingly high for public service.Freehhas cut middle management and transferred many office-bound agents out into thefield. At the same time, he has encouraged a more professional app-roach to HRissues begun in the 1980s. Harriscites one small but telling example of progress: the emotional support given toagents who have suffered trauma. “The level of support is completelydifferent to what it was when I joined the Bureau 20 years ago, not just foragents but also for their partners and families.” As 46 FBI agents havedied either doing their job or in work-related situations since the firstBureau of Investigation was founded in 1909 and, given the nature of thetypical agent’s case-load (even though they are not all profiling serialkillers), it is astonishing that the FBI has not pioneered this service ratherthan playing catch up, as it has since the 1980s. TheBureau’s problems need to be put in perspective. The staff turnover rate is nowpretty low even by the standards of government organisations. Among agents,Harris says, it could be as low as 2 to 3 per cent.TheBureau does, at least, appear to have made a decent fist out of shaking off thelegacy of the 48-year reign of J Edgar Hoover. It is no longer a virtualdictatorship, it no longer promotes employees on a matter of whim (the drynessof their palms, the size of their head ñ see the panel on the Hoover legacyabove for more details) or sycophancy and directors can only serve for amaximum of 10 years.Hoover’scorps of cronies has also long since left the Bureau which, after debacles likeWaco in 1993, probably has a better public reputation now than at any timesince the 1930s when its agents were the stars of countless movies and comicbooks. And, probably most important of all, the gap between public perception andreality as experienced by the FBI’s staff, has narrowed considerably.TheFBI’s head office in Washington DC may still be named after him but the spiritof J Edgar Hoover has long since left the building.FBI fact file –Section chief for personnel resources is R Stanley Harris–More than 40 per cent of the 27,517 strong workforce are special agents–The number of FBI employees has grown by 14 per cent in the past eight years–You are not eligible to apply until you are 23, have a degree like law orlanguages and have been in a job for a year–TV series like the X Files, movies like Men in Black helps boost recruitment–The FBI has more more applicants than positions but it has to compete forscarce talent with companies like IBM and Microsoft–Staff turnover is low compared to other US government organisations – 2-3 percentTheHoover legacy : when Hoover left a vaccum TheFBI’s longest serving and most famous director J Edgar Hoover used to becomeagitated if an employee stepped in his shadow. The task for the FBI, in the 28years since his death, has been to try and escape from his spectre.WhenHoover, a national icon in his own lifetime, died in harness in 1972, he leftbehind an institution whose morale had been sapped by mounting publiccriticism, controversy over the Bureau’s attitude to the civil rights movementin general (and the late Martin Luther King in particular) and by Hoover’s ownincreasingly bizarre and dictatorial whims.Inhis sensational biography of Hoover, Official And Confidential, Anthony Summersquotes a prominent psychiatrist who compares Hoover’s personality to HeinrichHimmler’s. This is probably going too far (and is based, after all, on thetestimony of experts who had never met either of the people mentioned). Fromthe 1960s onwards, Hoover’s bizarre behaviour and strong right-wing beliefsbegan to undermine the Bureau and affect the very people who had always beenits most potent public symbol – the special agents.Someof the stories are simply too weird to believe. Such as, the time he visited afield office, for instance, inspected a parade of agents and told the manager,”One of these men is a pinhead. Fire him.” The manager, wanting totake no chances, took their hat sizes: three men all had size 6 1/2 hats so hefired all three of them.Summersalleges that one agent died after following a crash diet introduced by ahealth-conscious Hoover in the late 1950s while another was hounded out of theBureau because he refused to lose what the director (but not the agent’sdoctors) considered a suitable amount of weight.Onenew agent, according to former FBI agent William W Turner, was fired for”looking like a truck driver”, while others were penalised for havingmoist palms.Norwere the agents the only victims. Turner recounts the case of a clerk, firedfor the crime of allowing a woman from his home town to sleep in his flat fortwo nights while she found accommodation. Turner also alleges that when Hooverfound himself sharing the elevator with an employee with acne, the ensuingbrouhaha was so great that an assistant director was forced into prematureretirement. Some of his policies were also odd: staff were forbidden to eatsnacks at their desk until his successor Patrick Gray revoked the ban.Hoover’smegalomania and eccentricity were largely concealed from the public until the1960s but his insistence, for example, that there was no such thing as theMafia had begun to seem absurd both inside and outside the Bureau as long agoas 1962. By then, Turner says, the Bureau began to suffer a recruitment crisiswhich forced it to cancel three recruitment classes for new agents in one year.Hesays the Bureau only solved this crisis by lowering its entry standards. (Theirony here was that Hoover had refused a request from the then-attorney generalRobert Kennedy to hire more black agents by saying that to do so, the Bureauwould have to lower standards.)Thecrisis became official in 1969 when a group of agents in Los Angeles wrote tothe attorney general complaining that Hoover was a senile megalomaniac. Hooverdid make one gesture to the spirit of the times, he finally agreed in 1971 thatfemale staff could wear trousers – although the first female agent was notemployed until after his death. President Nixon was still trying to screw upthe courage to fire Hoover when the FBI’s most famous director died, of anapparent heart attack in 1972.FurtherreadingHoover’sFBI William W Turner, Thunder’s Mouth Press ISBN 1 5602 5063 1OfficialAnd Confidential Anthony Summers, Gollancz £18.99 ISBN 0 5750 4236 2TheFBI Athan G Theoharis, Checkmark Books ISBN 0 8160 4228 4Theofficial FBI web site can be found on www.fbi.gov.uk Previous Article Next Article Comments are closed. last_img read more