The FBI Climate Survey Fiction
This article does not reflect the opinion or official position of the FBI
(above statement included at the direction of the FBI pre-publication review Unit).
I listened intently as Director Comey told FBI Miami Division supervisors how crucial the FBI's Annual Climate Survey was to him. The Survey is an online tool where subordinates rate FBI managers using a numerical rating scale while answering about one-hundred questions. Employees are also provided an opportunity to submit written comments to FBIHQ upper-management about FBI supervisors and executives that they rate. FBIHQ sells the Climate Survey as an entirely anonymous reporting system. The Director was touting the Climate Surveys as a valuable tool he uses to judge how supervisors and executives are performing their jobs. During his Miami appearance, the Director relayed to employees how he loves reading the Survey's comments section, which he claimed to do voraciously. To underscore his point during a separate meeting, he removed from his pocket and ceremoniously unfurled a Miami employee comment that was three pages long. He tells FBI employees that they should respond candidly on their Survey and to have confidence that their bosses can never figure out who wrote which comments. The Director said that personnel at FBIHQ spend countless hours scrubbing Climate Survey comments, "to remove any indicator" of the author's identity, ensuring comments are not attributable to particular employees. According to the Director, so thorough are FBIHQ officials in their Survey Comment scrubbing that occasionally their work delays Survey results from being released. The clear message being that it is impossible for bosses ever to hold a particular subordinate's comments against them. I was told that the Director has made a point of repeating this, "anonymous comments" narrative over and over again during his visits to FBI Field Offices. I have requested a copy of any recording of the Director's Miami meetings, but the FBI has not responded to that request.
It was troubling for me to hear the Director making these gullible statements. I say gullible because I am confident that the Director didn't know that what he was saying was misleading. Thus far in his tenure the Director seems to be very earnest when dealing with employees, so I believed that he had been duped, either explicitly or through silence, into believing that Survey comments are scrubbed. FBI executives are famous for only sharing the information that will allow the Director to come to their desired conclusions. If a Director were given all the facts, executives might lose control of his decision making, which might lead to them losing control of their version of the FBI. That would be a disaster! However, I thought it was almost Macaveilliean how executives had not only convinced the Director of the Climate Survey fiction that employee comments are anonymous but that they remained silent while he sells that fiction to the unsuspecting line-level employees.
Unfortunately, here's the truth: most FBI managers can identify which subordinates authored the comments in their Survey. FBIHQ never provides the employees with the Survey results of any of the managers they rate. So employees have no idea that their written comments, who they meant for FBIHQ upper-management to read, are also being disseminated word-for-word to the manager that they rated. The written comments given to the Director might be scrubbed, but Survey comments distributed to other supervisors and executives certainly are not. Employees write their comments having falsely relied on the fiction of anonymity. They earnestly wish to communicate to high levels at FBIHQ about nefarious leadership. However, since their comments are also disseminated word-for-word to the boss that they rated, most supervisors can usually attribute comments to specific subordinates. This attribution can be made in a number of ways. For example, the circumstances mentioned in the subordinates comments might be singular to a particular incident. Or they discuss an event that occurred where only the supervisor and one employee knows those facts. Alternatively, many times the voice of the author comes through in their comments. Since managers routinely read and approve hundreds of documents authored by their subordinates, they become familiar with a subordinate's distinct writing style that can then be easily recognized in their Survey comments. Also, many people use unique words and phrases that give away their identity. And many executives like it that way! They want employees to believe their survey comments are anonymous because by reading what employees thought they wrote anonymously, they can determine who is loyal or disloyal to them. With the delicious added twist that the subordinate does not have a clue that they had just outed themselves. A special, treasured find is when managers catch someone who overtly acts in a loyal, supportive manner, but then reports their real feelings differently in their Survey comments. With revenge being a dish best served cold, knowing the identity of who reported negative comments about them to their FBIHQ superiors is highly coveted information. It is information that executives can make use of in a very personally productive manner. Executives also know the reality is that Climate Surveys mean nothing to their career progression. Entire FBI divisions have lambasted executives on Surveys without consequence to the executive. FBIHQ routinely promotes executives after subordinates had repeatedly destroyed the manager on their Climate Survey.
Just after the Director's Miami visit I called together FBI agents I supervised telling them that because I loved them and cared deeply about them, I wanted them to know the truth. I warned them that most FBI managers can quickly determine which of their subordinates wrote almost every comment on their Climate Survey. I told them I believed employee comments were disseminated verbatim, word-for-word to the FBI official that the employee rated, with the possible implications being obvious. I advised them they might want to take that into account when writing comments for future supervisors and executives. My squad's survey comments about me had been very complimentary and my retirement was imminent, so no one working for me cared what the hell I thought about them at that point. They criticized me all the time to my face, which I encouraged and often deserved, so their Survey comments were moot. However, I cautioned them that some other managers might be a bit light on the Integrity part of the motto when reading what employees had written about them to the Special Agent-in-Charge and FBIHQ. Having always demanded my subordinates immediately tell me when I was saying something stupid, an opportunity they fearlessly took often, they wasted no time ganging up on me and pushing back about my opinion on survey comments. They scoffed and reminded me that the Director just went over this in his meeting with them. Besides, they protested to me saying, for years Field executives and FBIHQ had led them to believe that Survey comments are scrubbed, and there was no way for comments to be traced to a particular employee.
So I offered the squad a little,"evidence challenge". I agreed to email them a copy of my Survey results. They would see my numerical report card laid bare, and know how I stacked up against other managers in the Miami Division and throughout the FBI. However, I reminded them that their comments were embedded in my Survey. If I were right, they would see that their comments about me are not scrubbed and were included word-for-word. Moreover, they could easily do what most managers can do, attribute each comment to its author. I said that if they unanimously agreed, I would email them my Survey. My squad had no hesitation. They gleefully jumped at my challenge; they wanted to see for themselves. So I emailed them my Survey. Soon squad members were voluntarily confirming to me that their comments had been provided to me word-for-word by FBIHQ. And they said they had no doubt which squad mate had written which comments. It was the first empirical test I'm aware of confirming what most FBI executives know, that Survey comments do not get scrubbed for anonymity.
I brought up my squad's empirical study with some FBI managers assigned in various offices. They were not surprised about the outcome of my experiment and confirmed knowing who wrote most of the comments in their Surveys. They agreed with my assessment that their subordinate's comments were provided to them verbatim, and that made it easy to figure out who wrote them. One executive relayed that comments on their Survey were gratuitously hurtful and vindictive. The executive said employees had worked hard at going out of their way to injure their reputation with their superiors, but they added they were very confident they knew precisely who wrote those comments. Years ago I heard a Special Agent In Charge menacingly say in an angry, staccato rhythm, "I, read, every, comment, every, person, wrote". He was referring mostly to comments made about supervisors and Assistant Special Agents-in-Charge (ASACs) assigned to him. However, he appeared to be taking it to a new level. Others in the room thought he was not only identifying those who were critical of him but also identifying those employees he felt were unfairly critical of managers that he favored.
A brick agent I asked about the survey observed that the Survey begins by asking biographical questions such as male or female, time in the FBI, job assignment, time in that job, etc. He said he feared that even without your name or IP address attached to your Survey, FBI personnel with higher access protocols, such as SACs, could obtain your bio data to corroborate their suspicions about the writer's identity. Consequently, he said he never writes anything that is true or critical in his Survey! One supervisor complained to me that management had dumped three problem agents on him who were under internal inquiry, and he was told to place the agents under close supervision. He had only five subordinates respond to his Survey, so the three malcontents, who were under internal investigation were unfairly able to negatively affect his rating. He questioned how employees who were transferred for disciplinary reasons were not only allowed to rate him but allowed to make up a significant statistical majority of those submitting evaluations on him.
I recently heard FBI Executive Assistant Director (EAD) Eric Velez-Villar lament that the Bureau-wide employee response rate to the 2014 Climate Survey had the lowest participation rate in its history. I caution the EAD, that unless the ability to trace employee comments is corrected, statistical invalidity is overcome, and FBIHQ stops continually promoting executives who embarrassingly flunk their survey, he should not expect the employee participation rate to get any better soon.