Staffers at the nation's largest passport-processing agency accuse the office of bullying, retaliation and unfair hiring practices, saying supervisors, among other things, put a "hurt feelings report" on the desks of workers perceived as whining and displayed a Walmart job application as a message to unhappy employees, according to a federal report.
Workers at the National Passport Center in Portsmouth made complaints to a hotline earlier this year, which prompted the federal investigation, according to the report by the Office of Inspector General.
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The complaints suggested that some members of the center's leadership team were responsible for the alleged activities, which, if true, would go against leadership principles, according to the report, released Wednesday.
State Department officials said they are committed to providing a workplace that is free from harassment.
"The department concurs with all of the OIG's recommendations, and we are working to implement them," Noel Clay of the State Department told WMUR-TV.
The center was created in 1992 and grew from 60 employees to about 900 following a 2007 surge in passport demand. It's the largest of 29 passport-processing agencies. It issued 7.4 million passports in fiscal year 2017, or 38 percent of all passports issued by the U.S. government, from October 2016 to September 2017.
The report said the "rapid and exponential growth" of the center wasn't matched by a corresponding change to its organizational structure.
The Inspector General's Office said it interviewed 188 employees, both in New Hampshire and in Washington. It sent out a questionnaire to nearly 900 employees and received 550 responses. The agency also visited the Portsmouth center for two weeks.
Employees' concerns included bullying; ineffective communication; retaliation; sexual and gender-based discrimination; and unclear guidance for security procedures.
"Many employees reported that managers and supervisors denigrated their employees' character and reputation," the report said. "Employees identified multiple incidents of managers and supervisors who intimidated their subordinates and sometimes their colleagues. At times, the reported intimidation was subtle, but more often it was blunt, offensive, and demeaning."
Examples included putting a "hurt feelings report" form on employees' desks portraying them as "whiners," and displaying a Walmart job application with a note saying that if employees didn't like working there, Walmart was hiring. Buttons that read "stop lurking" were distributed after workers expressed concerns that a manager was eavesdropping and making them feel uncomfortable.
Among the agency's recommendations are coming up with a corrective action plan within 60 days; improving communication between management and employees; and requiring the center to implement a local training program for employees.
U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, a New Hampshire Democrat, called for an immediate response.
"This workplace environment, which has led to security lapses, retaliation, bullying and ineffective passport services, cannot continue," Shea-Porter told WMUR-TV. "The OIG recommendations need to be followed and these issues corrected now. No excuses."