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Turning over a New Leaf, The Formula for Fixing Turnover

Security managers have often heard it said that when it comes to security guards, high turnover is just a fact of life. But whether the company has proprietary forces or contract officers, management needs to rethink this self-fulfilling prophecy disguised as a truism. The right policies can reduce turnover and result in a higher quality force.

Not surprisingly, the key to retaining security officers is to pay them better and treat them better. Unfortunately, companies often fail to follow this formula for success. Security is an industry plagued by low profit margins for contract service providers, which leads to low pay for the officers. The average entry-level security officers may make just above minimum wage, unless they work on federal installations or nuclear sites or are associated with special projects or members of the emerging elite security forces. According to research published by The Freedonia Group, Inc., an independent market research firm, security industry turnover annually exceeds 100 percent, even beating turnover in the fast food industry. Many security personnel earn less than $17,028—the federal poverty level.

Paying low wages that lead to high turnover is penny wise and pound foolish. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, it can cost a company the equivalent of one-third of an employee’s annual salary to replace that individual. But what’s worse is that high turnover is inherently dangerous in an industry charged with the security and safety of human beings. Clearly, when employees don’t stay long enough to become proficient at the job, overall performance suffers.

The problem of turnover was highlighted in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when the U.S. General Accounting Office—the investigative arm of Congress—reported that preflight security screeners in the nation’s 19 largest airports had a turnover rate of 127 percent. In fact, turnover was so high that, as another study noted, the average screener had only three months’ experience on the job. (The GAO had, in fact, repeatedly noted problems with airport screener turnover long before 9/11.)

Subsequent to 9/11, United and Southwest Airlines announced pay increases for airport screening personnel, and the newly hired federal screeners will work for higher wages as well. Studies suggest a positive outcome. Research on preflight screeners’ salaries by the University of California at Berkeley, conducted before 9/11, showed that turnover dropped from 110 percent to 25 percent when screener salaries were increased.

More than money. While better pay is important, other factors also affect turnover. These include attitude, training, and treatment.

Attitude. A basic tenant of human psychology is that self-image is directly tied to motivation. Officers who are made to feel better about their job will take more pride in doing it well. Motivated officers who believe they are providing a vital service manifest an attitude of professionalism, confidence, and competency.

Professional attire can help officers feel self-confident. Thus, it makes sense to require that officers dress in professional uniforms. A growing positive trend in the United States is replacing “guard” with titles such as “security officer,” “protection officer,” and other more professional-sounding designations.

Training. Training for both security supervisors and officers is also essential. The Wackenhut Training Institute (where the author works) develops and conducts training programs for company personnel and is aimed at reducing company officer turnover. (The institute is part of the Wackenhut Corporation of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, a leading provider of contract officers.)

Institute instructors use neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), developed in the early 1970s by researchers at the University of California at Santa Cruz who studied how successful people communicate through verbal language, body language, eye movements, and other factors. The theory they developed is that the words we use reflect an inner, subconscious perception of our problems. The underlying problem will persist as long as these words are used either in internal thought or in speaking. For instance, when a security officer describes himself as “just a guard” in a tone of voice that denotes negativity or unhappiness, it is a clear indication of a self-image problem, which leads directly to poor performance. When the brain learns healthier words, thought patterns, and behaviors, it brings about positive physical and emotional effects. In short, if an officer thinks of him- or herself as a professional, he or she will become a professional.

In his seminal work, Looking Glass Theory, Charles Horton Cooley demonstrated that for most people self-image is other-directed. “We are what we think others think we are.”  Image, then, often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Taken to the extreme, people who think other people dislike and fail to respect them end up not liking or respecting themselves.

To help improve officers’ self-image, instructors then use diagnostic tools such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) to identify officers’ major personality strengths.

The average security practitioner tends to be either a Myers-Briggs ESTJ or ISTJ—that is, either an extraverted or introverted sensor/thinker/judger. Both types are driven by duty, service, and team spirit. Among the positive characteristics they bring to a workplace can be attention to deadlines and procedures, practicality, a commonsense style of problem solving, and good organizational skills. They have a strong chain-of-command orientation, are logical thinkers, and are loyal, naturally watchful, and decisive. These are all positives that, when understood, promote an officer’s positive self-image.

Although the MBTI can also involve negative characteristics, Wackenhut’s training focuses on the talents that team members bring to the security profession. For example, when instructors explain that while 20-25 percent of the general population are ISTJs or ESTJs, about 65 percent of security personnel have one of these two personality types, officers begin to see themselves as possessing something that sets them apart and makes them ideally suited for a security career.

Officers also learn that each character type has an opposite and that getting “in touch” with that opposite can be beneficial. As an example, the opposite of a thinker is a feeler, and people of this type tend to be empathetic and, therefore, good at customer service. Task-oriented thinkers are coached to realize that they may have to work a little harder to provide good customer service because of their personality type. They can adopt a mental script that says, “This is my personality type. It is okay to have this type. When dealing with this customer, I have to remember that the opposite of my natural inclination may yield better results.”

Treatment. Another leading cause of security officer turnover is poor relationships with first-line supervisors. One problem is that security supervisors often take a “my way or the highway” approach with staff.

Recognizing the importance of this issue, the Wackenhut Training Institute began a comprehensive program for its security supervisors in 2000. These seminars begin by challenging supervisors to examine their attitudes toward their team members by answering questions such as:

  • “Do you think that security officers will do their jobs well even when a supervisor is not present?”
  • “Are you confident that unsupervised officers will make competent decisions?”
  • “Do you really respect the officers?”

Course attendees are then asked how they believe their team members view them, including answering such questions as:

  •  “Does the supervisor take pride in his or her work and profession?”
  • “Does the supervisor refer to him- or herself and others using favorable descriptors?”
  •  “What kind of image does the supervisor project?”

The answers are then discussed in context with neuro-linguistic theory.

Supervisors also take a series of diagnostic tests to discover how they view themselves and how they would respond to specific leadership challenges, such as team building, managing conflict, and leading under stress. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is also administered to determine personality type (again, in the author’s experience, predominantly ESTJ or ISTJ), and the benefits and drawbacks of those personality types in regard to a supervisory role are examined. For instance, some individuals tend to take command, make decisions, and issue orders without considering the resulting effect on others. They also may use established solutions to problems while ignoring the opinions and criticizing the efforts of others. By doing this, they are demeaning the sense of team spirit that most security officers need, thereby encouraging turnover.

During interactive workshops, instructors assist the participants in arriving at such positive corrective actions as recognizing and rewarding the contributions of the officers, remembering the limitations of others, considering the effect of their orders on others before issuing commands, and consulting with other team members.

The supervisors also review classic theories of motivation, such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory, which posits that there are both “deficiency needs” and “growth needs.” Within the deficiency needs, each lower need must be met before moving to the next highest level. Once each of these needs has been satisfied, if at some future time a deficiency is detected, the individual will be more likely to act to remove the deficiency.

Also explored is Transactional Analysis Theory—which studies communication patterns to reveal both the stimulus and response to discover those that are direct, productive, and healthy—as well as McGregor’s X and Y Theory, wherein it is argued that there is nothing innately wrong with exercising authority, but if a unilateral management authority proves less effective than democratic involvement, it is wiser to adopt this style of management thinking.

Instructors also emphasize the importance of reducing turnover in finite and personal terms. Supervisors learn how to quantify turnover, how to measure its financial effects over time, and how to examine the detrimental results of turnover on customer service.

Using a U.S. Department of Labor formula for calculating turnover, they discover that it can cost up to three times the employee’s salary to replace him or her. Supervisors are further taught that their customers include not just clients in the traditional sense but also the security officers who report to them. To function most productively, these employees must receive proper mentoring and praise.

Additionally, supervisors are taught that a critical aspect of officer self-confidence is proper training on every aspect of the tasks they are expected to perform. And supervisors learn that they are key to the training role. For example, in one case of which the author was aware, a supervisor was returning reports to an officer, saying that the reports were incorrectly written, but the supervisor was providing no instruction on how to write the reports properly and no positive feedback on any improvements the officer did achieve on his own. A later supervisor who worked with the officer took a more mentoring approach and provided praise for improvements. The officer ultimately developed into a skilled report writer.

The supervisor training program has been ongoing for about three years. The result for Wackenhut has been a substantial decrease in officer turnover since the training was initiated.

The name of the game in the security industry is not obtaining interchangeable warm bodies. It should be to identify, hire, and retain optimum performers. Through reasonable pay, proper and positive supervision, and the promotion of a healthy self-image, companies can keep dedicated, top-quality security officers on the payroll. 

Michael E. Goodboe, EdD, CPP, has been vice president of training for the Wackenhut Training Institute for the past 18 years. He holds a doctoral degree in higher education from Nova Southeastern University. He was previously a national intelligence security analyst with the U.S. Navy. He is a member of ASIS International.