Watching the detectives

It
might be the world’s most famous crime fighting force but the FBI is also an
employer, and in the robust US economy it finds itself facing the same human
resources issues as more conventional organisations

Eff-bee-aye."
The acronym, pronounced almost as if it is a phrase, is one of the most famous
in America if not the world. In movies, newsreels and our collective
imagination, these three letters are usually accompanied by the proud display
of a badge which reassures respectable citizens and strikes fear into the
hearts of, as the Thirties cartoon serials would say, evildoers everywhere.

But
these are strange times for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Bureau,
once the epitome of buttoned-up respectability, has had to live with the
possibility that J Edgar Hoover, the director with whom the it is still most
closely identified, and after whom its head office is named, may have been a
transvestite homosexual. His idea of a good time, it is said, was to slip on a
black dress, slap on some make up, and turn up at parties frequented by
organised crime figures who would be instructed to address this pillar of
public rectitude as "Mary".

With
all the hype, it is sometimes easy to forget that the FBI is, like many less
famous organisations, also just another employer. And R Stanley Harris, the
section chief for personnel resources, says the Bureau has to cope with many of
the same problems as other big employers. "We still have more applicants
than we have positions," he tells Personnel Today, "but we are not
immune to the pressures of what has been, for the last eight or nine years, a
very robust economy. And, especially when we try to fill specialist positions,
we find ourselves competing for scarce talent with the likes of IBM and
Microsoft."

Unlike
Bill Gates, the FBI also has certain physical standards that make it harder to
recruit agents. For example, an agent’s uncorrected vision must be no worse
than 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 in
the past five years or steroids since 1991.

As
of 30 November 2000, the FBI had 16,105 support employees and 11,412 special
agents which means the real life counterparts of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully
form more than 40 per cent of the Bureau’s workforce. Almost alone among public
organisations in the US, the FBI has been relatively immune to the pressures of
cost cutting. While the total federal government workforce fell by 18 per cent
during President Clinton’s eight years in office, the percentage increase in
FBI employees is about 14 per cent. Part of this has been the growth in what
the FBI calls intelligence officers who now number more than 1,000.

Life
experience

But
surely the Bureau’s constant exposure in series like the X Files and movies
like Men in Black and Silence of the Lambs must help recruitment? Harris
admits, "We do get much interest through the Internet and the post but
many applicants may want to work on X Files or become profilers and we have to
assess their motivation in applying." Indeed, one of the count- less young
Americans inspired to apply for a job as an FBI agent was the young Richard
Nixon who was turned down in 1937, because, records suggest, he was deemed not
to be aggressive enough.

Although
its agents, Mulder and Scully apart, are often portrayed as white-shirted
bureaucratic clones, the Bureau does its best to ensure applicants have some
experience of real life. They are not eligible to apply until aged 23, for
example, and typically, you will have a degree in law, accountancy or languages
and have held down a job for at least a year. The application process is not
for the faint-hearted (or those unwilling to take a polygraph) but Harris says
that in no way does it resemble a witch-hunt. "We do not visit the sins of
the parents on the children, so whether your father was a member of the
Communist Party is less relevant than whether you have the integrity and
quality 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 to
be able to be given clearance to handle top secret material."

There
is a background check where FBI agents follow an applicant’s paper trail (for
details such as any criminal record) and interviewing current and ex-employers.
But as one agent, Doug Rhoads, stresses, "The biggest reason applicants
are knocked out isn’t because they have been selling drugs it’s because their
employees said they didn’t perform as well as applicants believe they
did."

The
Bureau’s biggest recruitment problem is still with ethnic minorities, which
Harris admits is not surprising given the "negative publicity" the
FBI has had in this area over the years. In the 1960s, the Bureau had one
operation, Cointelpro, devoted largely to bugging black civil rights leaders
and at Hoover’s behest, tapes of Martin Luther King’s extra-marital dalliances
were circulated to various people including King’s wife Coretta. He also
refused to appoint more than a handful of black agents. When attorney general
Robert 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 office
boy and chauffeur, there were none.

Harris
says, "We go to great lengths to get the word out to communities where we
have not been strong. Ideally, the Bureau should be a fair representation of
the society it serves." That ideal isn’t quite being delivered although to
be fair, the FBI has come a long way from the Hoover years when, in 1962, the
number of black agents stood at 10. As late as 1977, that number had risen to
only 300. In March 1998, the FBI employed 640 black agents (5.7 per cent of the
total), 787 hispanic agents (7.0 per cent) and 1,777 female agents (15.8 per
cent of the total). The split is more even among support personnel with 22 per
cent of that group being black and 67.9 per cent being female.

Landmark
settlements

Perhaps
surprisingly, the Bureau does not practice positive discrimination. "We
make special efforts to make sure we get as wide a range of applicants as
possible in terms of ethnic background, gender and sexual orientation,"
says Harris, "but every applicant is treated equally."

Two
landmark settlements have reinforced the FBI’s drive to improve its performance
on ethnic issues. In 1990 the Bureau settled a case by a hispanic agent
alleging that he and his colleagues were being discriminated against for
promotion and confined to the "taco circuit" in the south-western
states. Three years later, another settlement with a group of agents called
Badge (Black Agents Don’t Get Equality) led to a federal judge monitoring the
FBI’s personnel practices. In 1993 the Bureau agreed, in response to another
suit, that homosexuality would no longer be regarded as a form of misconduct.

Under
present director Louis Freeh, appointed for a 10-year term in 1993, the FBI has
publicly insisted that its "very, very bad historical track record"
must come to an end. Back in 1990, when FBI staff were surveyed, 26 per cent
said they had seen sexual or racial discrimination in the workplace. The Office
of Professional Responsibility is charged with making sure the workforce
doesn’t let the Bureau down and in 1999 it investigated just five cases of
sexual harassment or misconduct, down from 21 the previous year. Last year one
agent was dismissed after the OPR found he had been driving under the influence
of alcohol while on duty.

The
FBI has since beefed up its employment opportunity affairs office to
investigate complaints and revised its selection procedures to try to remove
any kind of bias. Last year, in a move which suggested that the Bureau really
was confronting the darkest part of the Hoover legacy, Freeh announced that all
new agents would be trained in the lessons of the holocaust in general and the
role played by law enforcement in that tragedy.

In
that 1990 survey, most FBI staff said they were dissatisfied with the Bureau’s
personnel policies, suggesting that, despite valiant effort, all traces of
Hooverism had not been eradicated. But morale at the FBI in his later years was
much lower than the public realised: former agent William Turner says turnover
among support staff in 1970 was 30 per cent – astonishingly high for public service.

Freeh
has cut middle management and transferred many office-bound agents out into the
field. At the same time, he has encouraged a more professional app-roach to HR
issues begun in the 1980s.

Harris
cites one small but telling example of progress: the emotional support given to
agents who have suffered trauma. "The level of support is completely
different to what it was when I joined the Bureau 20 years ago, not just for
agents but also for their partners and families." As 46 FBI agents have
died either doing their job or in work-related situations since the first
Bureau of Investigation was founded in 1909 and, given the nature of the
typical agent’s case-load (even though they are not all profiling serial
killers), it is astonishing that the FBI has not pioneered this service rather
than playing catch up, as it has since the 1980s.

The
Bureau’s problems need to be put in perspective. The staff turnover rate is now
pretty low even by the standards of government organisations. Among agents,
Harris says, it could be as low as 2 to 3 per cent.

The
Bureau does, at least, appear to have made a decent fist out of shaking off the
legacy of the 48-year reign of J Edgar Hoover. It is no longer a virtual
dictatorship, it no longer promotes employees on a matter of whim (the dryness
of their palms, the size of their head ñ see the panel on the Hoover legacy
above for more details) or sycophancy and directors can only serve for a
maximum of 10 years.

Hoover’s
corps of cronies has also long since left the Bureau which, after debacles like
Waco in 1993, probably has a better public reputation now than at any time
since the 1930s when its agents were the stars of countless movies and comic
books. And, probably most important of all, the gap between public perception and
reality as experienced by the FBI’s staff, has narrowed considerably.

The
FBI’s head office in Washington DC may still be named after him but the spirit
of 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 or
languages 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 for
scarce talent with companies like IBM and Microsoft


Staff turnover is low compared to other US government organisations – 2-3 per
cent

The
Hoover legacy : when Hoover left a vaccum

The
FBI’s longest serving and most famous director J Edgar Hoover used to become
agitated if an employee stepped in his shadow. The task for the FBI, in the 28
years since his death, has been to try and escape from his spectre.

When
Hoover, a national icon in his own lifetime, died in harness in 1972, he left
behind an institution whose morale had been sapped by mounting public
criticism, controversy over the Bureau’s attitude to the civil rights movement
in general (and the late Martin Luther King in particular) and by Hoover’s own
increasingly bizarre and dictatorial whims.

In
his sensational biography of Hoover, Official And Confidential, Anthony Summers
quotes a prominent psychiatrist who compares Hoover’s personality to Heinrich
Himmler’s. This is probably going too far (and is based, after all, on the
testimony of experts who had never met either of the people mentioned). From
the 1960s onwards, Hoover’s bizarre behaviour and strong right-wing beliefs
began to undermine the Bureau and affect the very people who had always been
its most potent public symbol – the special agents.

Some
of the stories are simply too weird to believe. Such as, the time he visited a
field office, for instance, inspected a parade of agents and told the manager,
"One of these men is a pinhead. Fire him." The manager, wanting to
take no chances, took their hat sizes: three men all had size 6 1/2 hats so he
fired all three of them.

Summers
alleges that one agent died after following a crash diet introduced by a
health-conscious Hoover in the late 1950s while another was hounded out of the
Bureau because he refused to lose what the director (but not the agent’s
doctors) considered a suitable amount of weight.

One
new agent, according to former FBI agent William W Turner, was fired for
"looking like a truck driver", while others were penalised for having
moist palms.

Nor
were the agents the only victims. Turner recounts the case of a clerk, fired
for the crime of allowing a woman from his home town to sleep in his flat for
two nights while she found accommodation. Turner also alleges that when Hoover
found himself sharing the elevator with an employee with acne, the ensuing
brouhaha was so great that an assistant director was forced into premature
retirement. Some of his policies were also odd: staff were forbidden to eat
snacks at their desk until his successor Patrick Gray revoked the ban.

Hoover’s
megalomania and eccentricity were largely concealed from the public until the
1960s but his insistence, for example, that there was no such thing as the
Mafia had begun to seem absurd both inside and outside the Bureau as long ago
as 1962. By then, Turner says, the Bureau began to suffer a recruitment crisis
which forced it to cancel three recruitment classes for new agents in one year.

He
says the Bureau only solved this crisis by lowering its entry standards. (The
irony here was that Hoover had refused a request from the then-attorney general
Robert Kennedy to hire more black agents by saying that to do so, the Bureau
would have to lower standards.)

The
crisis became official in 1969 when a group of agents in Los Angeles wrote to
the attorney general complaining that Hoover was a senile megalomaniac. Hoover
did make one gesture to the spirit of the times, he finally agreed in 1971 that
female staff could wear trousers – although the first female agent was not
employed until after his death. President Nixon was still trying to screw up
the courage to fire Hoover when the FBI’s most famous director died, of an
apparent heart attack in 1972.

Further
reading

Hoover’s
FBI
William W Turner, Thunder’s Mouth Press ISBN 1 5602 5063 1

Official
And Confidential
Anthony Summers, Gollancz £18.99 ISBN 0 5750 4236 2

The
FBI
Athan G Theoharis, Checkmark Books ISBN 0 8160 4228 4

The
official FBI web site can be found on www.fbi.gov.uk

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