Skip to main content

Equal Employment Opportunity: Hiring, Promotion, and Discipline Processes at DEA

GAO-03-413 Published: Jun 10, 2003. Publicly Released: Jul 10, 2003.
Jump To:
Skip to Highlights


A 1981 U.S. District Court decision found that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) had discriminated against African American special agents in a number of personnel practices. Over the years, the plaintiffs and DEA had agreed to remedies in many of these areas. However, minority representatives continued to raise issues in three areas--hiring, promotion, and discipline. GAO was asked to examine DEA's current processes for hiring, promoting, and disciplining special agents, and provide information about racial, ethnicity, and gender differences in these three areas.

During the October 1997 through March 2002 period, African American, Hispanic, and white applicants to be special agents passed DEA's medical requirements and interview process at about the same rates. However, African American and Hispanic applicants had lower passing rates on (1) the test of an applicant's ability to recall and write about a video of a drug-related enforcement action and (2) suitability requirements measured through a background investigation and other tests. DEA's hiring procedures are based on criteria in federal regulations, professional standards, and standards established by subject matter experts. However, DEA had not studied its hiring requirements to see why its procedures resulted in different selection rates and whether they could be modified to reduce differences while maintaining the high standards necessary for special agents. There were no statistically significant differences in promotion rates among the various racial, ethnic, and gender groups during fiscal years 1997 through 2001. DEA has a rigorous and validated competency-based process that uses job simulations to assess capabilities at the target grade level. However, the job-relatedness of a key step involving recommending special agents for promotion had not been established and our analysis showed that African American and Hispanic special agents were recommended for promotion at significantly lower rates. Despite differences in recommendation rates, DEA's promotion decisions mirrored the race, ethnic, and gender makeup of the agency's special agent workforce. Additionally, the agency, working with a diverse panel of special agents, subsequently developed a revised recommendation process. At the time of GAO's review, DEA and the African American representatives were involved in mediation to reach final agreement. Disciplinary data for fiscal years 1997 to 2001 showed that the proportion of African American, Hispanic, and women special agents disciplined for misconduct was significantly higher than their representation in the DEA special agent workforce. These higher rates reflect that African Americans, Hispanics, and women had a significantly higher percentage of allegations of misconduct lodged against them and that a significantly higher percentage of these allegations were substantiated by investigations and resulted in disciplinary action. A recent study by an outside contractor found DEA's disciplinary process to be fair and nondiscriminatory, but that study only considered African Americans and whites and not women or other minority groups.


Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Drug Enforcement Administration The Administrator of DEA should direct that a process be initiated to monitor the results of decisions at the various steps in the hiring process to identify differences in selection rates among groups, and where substantial differences are found, determine why they occur and what, if anything, can be done to reduce the differences while maintaining the high standards necessary for the job of special agent.
Closed – Implemented
In July 2005, DEA completed validation of the steps in the hiring process--(1) minimum education and qualifying experience, (2) written test, (3) physical task test, and (4) suitability criteria--and its linkage to federal regulations and professional standards. DEA provided a copy of the validation report that identified selection rates among gender and racial groups and made recommendations to continue future gap analysis. DEA reported that, as a result of the validation process, changes were made to the physical task test to help prepare candidates for the test so as to reduce failure rates and disparities among groups. DEA said it continues to monitor differences in selection rates among groups. DEA's actions are responsive to GAO's recommendation.
Drug Enforcement Administration The Administrator of DEA should direct that a workforce analysis be done, which takes into account retirement eligibility, expected retirements, and other attrition, to guide the development of DEA's recruiting and hiring plans and strategies.
Closed – Implemented
In February 2005, DEA reported that it had participated in a workforce skills gap analysis with other DOJ components. A contractor developed 5-year attrition rate data and skills gaps. Documentation of the analysis was provided. DEA used this data to guide the development of recruiting, hiring, and development plans for four core job series. DEA also reported that, in conjunction with the Department of Justice, it had developed the Integrated Workforce Analysis and Planning Model that projects 5-year attrition rates and identifies potential skills gaps to guide the development of DEA's workforce recruiting, hiring, and special agent development plans and strategies. GAO considers DEA's actions responsive to its recommendation.
Drug Enforcement Administration The Administrator of DEA should direct that the plans to monitor the results of the Special Agent in Charge/office head recommendation process by race and ethnicity be expanded to include monitoring by gender.
Closed – Implemented
Consistent with and in response to GAO's recommendation, DEA, since March 2006, now prepares reports for each vacancy announcement and Career Board session that, in addition to race and ethnicity, provide gender distribution data for individuals (1) appearing on best-qualified lists for promotion, (2) on the best-qualified lists receiving recommendations from special-agents-in-charge, and (3) selected for promotion.
Drug Enforcement Administration The Administrator of DEA should direct that steps be taken to develop, maintain, and ensure the reliability of a discipline database and that the study of disciplinary actions taken against African American and white special agents be expanded to analyze disciplinary actions against all racial, ethnic, and gender groups of special agents.
Closed – Implemented
In response to our recommendation, as of August 2006, DEA had completed development of the information management system that can share discipline information between HR and other DEA components. DEA's Human Relations Unit maintains and assures the reliability of this internal database that includes data from each of the three offices involved in the discipline process (Board of Professional Conduct, Employee Relations Office, and Deciding Officials). Summary demographic data for all racial, ethnic, and gender groups are developed and compiled into an annual Disciplinary EEO Report and posted on DEA's intranet. This action has been completed and is responsive to the recommendation.
Drug Enforcement Administration The Administrator of DEA should direct that appropriate, aggregate statistical data on the outcomes of the promotion and discipline processes for all racial, ethnic, and gender groups are available to its special agent workforce to help special agents formulate informed views about the fairness and equity of the agency's promotion and discipline processes.
Closed – Implemented
In response to GAO's recommendation, beginning in January 2005, DEA's HR and EEO offices published annual aggregate racial, ethnic, and gender data on special agent promotions on DEA's internal web site. In addition, beginning in May 2007, DEA began to publish aggregate demographic data on disciplinary and adverse actions involving special agents, including reprimands, suspensions, and removals, as envisioned in GAO's recommendation. Because DEA's actions are responsive to GAO recommendation, the recommendation is closed as implemented.

Full Report

Office of Public Affairs


Employee promotionsEmployment discriminationHiring policiesPersonnel managementRacial discriminationHispanic AmericansNative AmericansFederal hiringLabor forceMinorities