Overcoming "Security Screener Syndrome"

When jobs are repetitive and boring, they will not be done well. Have you examined your employees' job descriptions lately?

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.

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