Recognising the Professional Security Officer: motivation By Andrew McClumpha

Recognising the Professional Security Officer: motivation By Andrew McClumpha

Two things are constant within aviation security. First, the security officer will continue to be a vital component of an effective, risk reducing security system and second, the aviation security environment is one of continual change.

“…well-designed airport transformation efforts often fail because they do not capture the hearts and minds of the workforce…”

Aviation security has an excellent repertoire of legalisation, regulation and standards for technologies, processes, procedures, and an associated raft of regulations for security officer training and screening time limitations. So, why should we focus on motivation of the security officer? Surely, I hear you say, that’s an HR issue and not relevant to an effective security and passenger screening operation, where all that is needed to create an effective workforce is to pay a fair wage and make sure security officers comply with all processes and procedures correctly. Let me make a few observations that may help reinforce ‘why’ we should.

Motivation plays a critical role in achieving the goals and business objectives of any organisation. Airports are increasingly promoting their security officers as ambassadors for the airport to offer an enjoyable and secure passenger experience. However, when we assess motivation, we find evidence of a workforce who feel they are a group to which things are done to, rather than being an integral part of the airport. We hear phrases such as “well, we know they are changing the checkpoint screening area but we don’t know why”, “we are told what to do but not why”, “we are often not sure what is expected of us, but we know when we have done something wrong”, “we get excellent training but then we are not allowed to use that training to make decisions, we are like robots”, and so on. Regrettably, as passengers we all too often see the evidence of a de-motivated and disenchanted workforce at the key touch point of our journey through the airport.

Will a motivated workforce make a difference? The most significant operational expenditure (OPEX) for airport security is the passenger security screening function which accounts for at least 60% of those costs. A poorly motivated workforce can negatively impact operations and lead to reduced security effectiveness (e.g. more incidents of non-compliance, higher number of security breaches, etc.), lead to higher staff turnover, require higher levels of micromanagement to maintain processes, higher rates of absenteeism, less effective team working with the potential for longer passenger queues, and so on. But things can change. A motivated workforce is more proactive, attentive, and vigilant and will seek continual improvement. Working recently with a large airport, an initiative on improving motivation and security culture resulted in a decrease in voluntary turnover from 22% to 14% and a reduction in unplanned absenteeism from 800 days per month to approximately 250 days per month. Estimates indicate that the cost of hiring an ab initio security officer and training to operational standard is approximately the cost of that individual’s annual salary. With a workforce in excess of 1000 security officers, this outcome was a huge cost saving.

I mentioned at the start that continual change is a major feature. We have seen many revisions to screening processes over recent years, for example remote image screening replacing dedicated lane screening, the introduction of advanced X-ray systems, and the incorporation of new processes and procedures to combat new and emerging threats – the list is endless. However, the fact that change has typically become more frequent does not mean that it is easier to deliver. We see the most well-designed airport transformation efforts often fail because they do not capture the hearts and minds of the workforce who need to operate differently to deliver the change. Our evidence suggests that many change initiatives can be more successful if they address four key imperatives with the security officers: why are we changing, what is changing, what are the benefits and what is staying the same?
Let me offer some conclusions:

  • A highly motivated workforce can have a beneficial impact on performance, attitudes and behaviours, and support security effectiveness and cost efficiency.
  • Motivation is not just about the amount of pay; it is about recognising good performance, rewarding it appropriately, and above all else listening to, and engaging with the security officers.
  • Don’t try to change everything that affects motivation at once; focus on two or three topics and be clear about what you want to improve for your airport and your workforce.
  • Any changes will take time; you will not see the benefits overnight – but they will happen.
  • Assess motivation in both qualitative and quantitative ways and accept that things may need to change. Guidance is readily available on ‘how to’ and ‘what to’ (see www.cpni.gov.uk – Guard Force Motivation)
  • For improvements to be successful, engagement throughout the organisation is critical (see www.cpni.gov.uk – Protective Security Management Systems (PSeMS) for guidance)

“…an initiative on improving motivation and security culture resulted in a decrease in voluntary turnover from 22% to 14% and a reduction in unplanned absenteeism from 800 days per month to approximately 250 days per month…”

Finally, the professionalism, dedication and pride that security officers demonstrate for the job they do is fantastic. They are one of the greatest assets within the security system and are as critical as the integration of any technology or new process. If we achieve an empowered and motivated workforce operating within a positive organisational security culture, we go a long way to being able to address and meet the future challenges that we face.


Andrew McClumpha is the Director of McClumpha Associates, a Chartered Psychologist and a member of the Editorial Board of ASI. He can be contacted at xamcclumpha@mcclumpha-associates.com.