For years I've passed through airport security checkpoints without paying much attention to the people working there. It turns out, they weren't paying much attention to me either. No matter--I wasn't smuggling anything aboard the airplane, and nor were 99.9 percent of the other passengers. But the few who do try to slip past airport security with box cutters or other weapons seem to get through with ease. Those neatly uniformed employees with their high-tech radar and metal detectors are not doing a good job.

Why not? From the exhaustive news coverage, you get the distinct impression that the largest airport security company, Argenbright Security, is poorly managed. When they let a man with multiple knives and a tear gas canister past them in Chicago not long ago, it was only the vigilance of airline employees at the gate that saved us from another disaster. And when it came out a few days later that two of those confiscated knives were subsequently stolen by Argenbright employees, well, most people agreed that it was time for the federal government to step in--or at least for the airlines to staff their own security checkpoints. Let's get someone competent in there, right?

But consider two facts. First, those Argenbright employees are actually working for the airlines already, as subcontractors. It is already the responsibility of the airlines to take care of their own security, and they do it by putting the job out to bid (and usually by accepting the lowest bid--that's business, right?). Second, the government is already enmeshed in airport security--not only regulating it extensively, but also working to improve quality at Argenbright, Aviation Safeguards and other subcontractors. Assistant United States Attorney John J. Peace was quoted by The New York Times in November as saying, "We wanted to change their corporate culture," explaining that his office had been working with Argenbright since long before September 11. However, spot checks by his office revealed a continued pattern of problems--including the hiring of employees with criminal backgrounds and the failure of the company's new "compliance management committee" to even meet, let alone act.

So is this simply a case of incompetent, uncaring management? Can airport security be made airtight by shifting the screeners to the federal payroll? Will a better "corporate culture" fix the problem? Sorry to rain on the latest parade, but to my eye, the issue is with the fundamental structure of the work itself. This is a job that nobody can do consistently well. Most businesses have some jobs that are inherently difficult to do well. I have started to think of it as "security screener syndrome":

1. The work is repetitive and potentially dull.

2. Most of the time nothing much happens, so it seems like you aren't accomplishing anything important in the short term.

3. There is little in the way of immediate feedback to show you definitively when you make a mistake.

Sounds like the vast majority of jobs when you put it that way, doesn't it? Except that, in airport security, you cannot tolerate any errors, whereas we probably tolerate a great deal of poor performance in most jobs.

Repeat Offenders

Any work that is repetitive and boring and does not give immediate, clear feedback will not be done well. Period. And while the federal government might make some healthy changes in the airport security business--doing background checks on new hires, providing better wages and at least the minimum in benefits for current employees--that will not change the demotivating nature of the work itself. People will continue to do it relatively poorly, even if they have the best of intentions. Employees will still see this work as "terribly unattractive," to quote former F.A.A. Security Director Billie Vincent, and turnover will still be terribly high.

To overcome security screener syndrome, you have to make the work meaningful and interesting. Nothing else will fix the problem. It's that simple--and that complicated. As managers, we can avoid this syndrome in our own companies by, first, recognizing the syndrome when we see it. There is no point blaming the employees, the managers or the culture for poor performance when the job itself is the root cause. And second, we need to redesign those jobs so that they are more interesting and there are clearer and more frequent results. Everyone needs to feel that they are doing something valuable when they work. Otherwise, they will be unable to concentrate on their work or care about it.

One good way to improve the work itself is to give these employees more to accomplish. They rarely "find" anything when they search, so why keep looking? If you had to walk down 100 grocery-store aisles to find the one thing you wanted to buy, you'd walk right past it when you finally got to it. No one can stay attentive for long when they don't see what they are looking for.

I don't really care what else you add to the job, so long as you add something that increases the level of ongoing accomplishment. Have them play games, such as "who can count the most rolls of film in luggage and handbags," for all I care, so long as they are actively seeking and finding things throughout their work day. If I had to supervise this job, I'd have regular contests with prizes to encourage and reward "searching behavior." That, after all, is what we need these people to do well and take pride in doing.

And here's a radical thought. Why not ask the people who do this job what they need to do it better and enjoy it more? Sure, at first they'll just say, "More money," but once you get them thinking, they will no doubt have plenty of ideas you could run with. Funny I haven't heard the employee's voice so far in all that extensive media coverage. You'd think it might make sense to sit at their elbow, watch them work and ask them when they get bored and why. Perhaps something as simple as shorter turns in each of the job stations would make a big difference to them--we'll never know unless we ask.


Alex Hiam is a trainer, consultant and author of several popular books on business management, marketing and entrepreneurship, including Streetwise Motivating & Rewarding Employees, The Vest-Pocket CEOand other popular books.