New HR director refines anti-bullying policy

By From page A1 | January 24, 2014

On the job since September, Human Resources Director Pamela Knorr told El Dorado County Board of Supervisors Tuesday she was cautioned about taking her new position. She said “lots of people called and said, ‘Are you crazy?’” The county is perceived by folks in other jurisdictions as a place where HR managers go to fail, or perhaps more positively, a place just to get trained and move on, she said. The HR Department has had 11 different directors in fewer than 11 years.

Knorr’s remarks were prelude to a larger discussion about creating and maintaining a “Respectful Workplace” through development of enforceable policies and procedures. Often and commonly categorized under the heading of “anti-bullying,” the county initiated formal policies to counter bullying in the workplace last April. Due to the issue’s complexity, Chief Administrative Officer Terri Daly asked for more time to work on the matter. Tuesday’s special board meeting fine-tuned some personnel policy issues and directed staff to incorporate disparate and redundant policies or procedures into a single document of Personnel Rules. When finalized, the Respectful Workplace policy will reside there.

The cost in money and lost productivity for not setting and enforcing “anti-bullying” policies or other variations on workplace harassment, intimidation and the like can be a huge liability to the county, Knorr said. She described a recent case in Sacramento’s San Juan School District. For failing to follow up on and take appropriate action on allegations of “harassment and retaliation” against the former superintendent, the district is now having to deal with $17 million in claims. That is on top of the more than $175,000 spent on investigating the allegations and the district’s response, she said. An elected school board member also was “censured” over the issue.

While there are federal civil rights laws and regulations in place, such as non-discrimination for race, religion, gender, ethnicity or other circumstances that are a “protected class of people,” Knorr noted that the county does not have a “policy or procedure to report disrespectful conduct violations.” And “this is not about one employee parking in another employee’s parking spot,” she emphasized.

Complaints are handled under the federal Equal Employment Opportunity system if they involve a member of a “protected class,” Knorr said. However, dealing with non-EEO cases requires a less formal approach. “We’ll sit down with the department heads if we hear a number of complaints,” she said, adding that the process typically involves a “workplace culture assessment.” That is, look to see if there is a systemic problem caused by or influenced by personalities or traditions that may have developed over time within a particular department or the county governmental structure as a whole.

Supervisor Ron Mikulaco expressed concern over who would actually make a determination that a complaint warranted any action regarding bullying or disrespect and posited that an employee could potentially use it as a ruse to justify failure to carry out a supervisor’s legitimate instructions.

“Who makes the decision about whether it has impaired the effectiveness of the county; is it when we can’t carry on the business of the county in an efficient and cost-effective way?” he asked.

Revisiting an earlier theme, Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Kim Kerr responded that “not everyone is professional, so we need a mechanism to address when they aren’t.”

Allegations of “disrespectful behavior” or bullying are investigated by representatives of Human Resources, Risk Management and the County Counsel, Knorr explained.

Supervisor Ron Briggs, responding to Mikulaco’s seeming concern with the minutiae in the foregoing conversation, said, “Why are we picking pepper out of a manure pile? This is about policy.”

“The HR director says it’s a badge of honor to get fired from El Dorado County,” Supervisor Ray Nutting  immediately interjected. “It’s stunning — 11 HR directors — what’s wrong?”

Board chairwoman Norma Santiago drew a broader picture of what is needed countywide. She called it a “bottom line foundational structure to (establish) a policy and procedure … to make county employment a positive environment. We want to create a place of productivity and creativity,” she said.

Knorr pointed out that there is a blueprint, what she called a “span of medicine for all this we’re talking about” within current industry practices. She described the first tenet as developing a workplace culture in which “staff hold each other accountable.” Typically, harassment or bullying occurs within sight or earshot of others in the workplace she said. Therefore, it is the responsibility of more than just the “victim” to report the bad behavior. Assessing the “culture” may be done by sending out surveys or questionnaires to employees or providing an online version. The immediate value of such surveys is to get a quick picture of staff views on the work environment.

Knorr described a more formal approach to a cultural assessment by conducting “interactive interviews” with employees and noted that there are competent, professional consulting organizations that could be contracted by the county to perform such a project. The cost for surveys and formal interviews she estimated at about $60,000. One company with which she is familiar would conduct “assessment, coaching and intervention” for about the same amount. A program to provide conflict resolution and communication training would cost about $20,000, she said.

Again Mikulaco voiced objections over the potential loss of time and productivity by employees participating in and completing surveys or participating in lengthy interviews and again asked, “What are we trying to accomplish?”

Daly responded, “You’re losing productivity with people who are afraid,” citing earlier data from Knorr’s slide presentation.

Titled “Symptoms of an Unhealthy Workplace Environment,” the list included “high turnover, increased leave usage or work avoidance.” While fear, anxiety or hopelessness are common expressions of unhealthiness at work, they also are less tangible and more difficult to detect and address. On the other hand, “raised voices, yelling, screaming and intimidation” are more easily recognized and easier to report.

Bullying takes different forms through action or inaction. The former may take place directly in a meeting or public setting, while the latter may be passive such as planting rumors, Knorr explained.

Several members of the audience spoke in support of a strong policy for reporting and dealing with disrespect in the workplace. Melody Lane from Coloma noted that “there are many tools available” then simplified the overall concepts, reiterating something Mikulako had said earlier: “Do the right thing.”

Former employees Sam Koch and Kris Payne related examples of past incidents wherein the county had to pay out significant sums for having mishandled cases of bullying despite the existence of some related policies and procedures.

“I’ve seen things that should have been prevented by policies already in the system,” Payne said.

Koch described a former employee who prevailed in one case, came back to work and eventually won another, even larger settlement with the county based on similar circumstances.

Briggs and Supervisor Brian Veerkamp were on board early as supporters for seeing the county spend the funds as generally recommended by Knorr and complete development of the policies. Veerkamp pointed out that the county needed to “invest in the process for our most valuable and expensive assets,” especially to avoid the kind of costs Knorr presented from the San Juan School District. Briggs also made it clear that any Respectful Workplace policy would have to apply to all those departments that are headed by elected officials as well as those who are appointed by the board. The county’s District Attorney, Treasurer-Tax Collector, Sheriff, Auditor-Controller, Recorder-Clerk, Surveyor and Assessor are all positions elected to four-year terms.
Because most county employees are represented by unions or other bargaining units, Knorr pointed out that any proposed policies would need to be considered relative to issues that might be negotiable or already elements in various labor contracts and Memoranda of Understanding.

Nutting had announced before the discussion that he had a particularly emotional reaction for the issue because of his sister Nancy, who is developmentally delayed and suffered from bullying in childhood. With barely concealed emotion, just before the board voted unanimously to move ahead with the staff recommendations, Nutting said, “I want to bring my family into this.” Holding up a photograph of the Nutting clan, he said, “I dedicate my vote to my sister Nancy … This agenda item will get us there — to treat everyone with dignity. This is a big day for El Dorado County.”

No deadline was set for completion of a draft policy or ordinance, however supervisors make it clear they wanted to see something sooner rather than later.

Chris Daley

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