Develop a Culture of Positive Leadership at All Levels of County Government!

(The following letter was sent recently to the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners by AFSCME Local 34 Chief Steward, Cliff Robinson)

Commissioners,

My name is Clifford Robinson. I am retiring on August 13th after forty four years of service with Hennepin County, forty years of which has been as a child protection social worker. For many years I have served as a chief steward for AFSCME Local 34. It is out of that experience that I am writing you. I am going to tell you about two work place issues which, because of your positions you may not be aware but which you are ultimately responsible.

All staff who pass the initial probation period are considered competent to do the job for which they are hired. However some employees because of physical or mental illness cannot maintain an adequate level of performance. In far too many cases the response of supervisors and managers is to use progressive discipline as a means of either improving performance or separating employees from county service. The use of progressive discipline in cases other than willful misconduct is inappropriate, clumsy and unethical. In child protection we see many parents whose only response to controlling their children is to punish them. Those parents are required to attend parenting classes to learn more appropriate techniques for dealing with their children. I am not implying that the staff are children but the differential in power between children and parents and staff and managers is the same. I will give you one example. I represented a social worker who had provided good service to the county for over twenty years.This person was involved in an automobile accident which resulted in significant and chronic neurological issues and made it increasingly difficult for this individual to maintain an acceptable quantity and quality of work. The response of the supervisor and manager was to impose progressive discipline starting with written reprimands, several suspensions without pay and finally discharge. Each instance of discipline was accompanied by a very demeaning and threatening letter. Each successive discipline made the worker more anxious and unable to improve performance and thus became a self-fulfilling prophesy. This is very typical of my experience with many employees over the years. I realize that there will be situations where employees can no longer adequately perform their jobs and ultimately must be separated from county service. When this happens a process that leaves the employee with his/her personal dignity and sense of self worth should be developed. However there are others who could be assisted to improve their performance to an acceptable level. Using progressive discipline in these instances is a cop- out for supervisors and managers who do not have the skills or the motivation to do their jobs. The ill effects of misusing progressive discipline goes far beyond the individual worker and creates morale problems for other workers who fear being singled out for similar treatment.

The second issue is related to the first; it is the ineffectiveness of the county board’s Diversity and Nondiscrimination Policy. This policy is a wonderful statement of human rights. Unless the intent and goals of this policy are carried out by all employees, especially those with supervisory or administrative authority it will remain essentially a dead letter. The policy requires employees and others to treat each other with respect. The treatment given to those employees with performance issues is anything but respectful and is a direct violation of this policy. Of equal concern are those supervisors who misuse their authority and who target members of their unit for abusive and disparate treatment. When this kind of behavior is allowed to continue it is very destructive to employee morale and affects the quality of their work. The clients that we serve then pay a price. We have used the complaint process in this policy to represent our members with virtually no success. I believe the reason for this is that the individual charged with administering this policy has insufficient authority to conduct independent investigations and is too close to the departments to be objective. If the Board wants its human right policies to be observed the complaint process must be revised and strengthened. I suggest that the office of affirmative action director be removed from human resources and placed directly under the county administrator or the Board itself. The director must be given authority to compel cooperation from department managers and department managers need to be told that the affirmative action director speaks for the county administrator or the board.

I don't want to leave you with the impression that I believe Hennepin County to be a bad place to work.  I have found most supervisors and managers to be well meaning and hard working people who do their jobs with competence and integrity. The same can be said of the staff. The policy regarding employees with performance issues I believe to be a creation of the HR Department, the Labor Relations Department or both. It needs to change. Social Darwinism in a progressive county like Hennepin is an ugly thing. The problems caused by the handful of supervisors who abuse their power is all out of proportion to their number. It should never be tolerated. 

The kind of change that I am advocating will never happen without clear leadership from the board. I suggest that you talk to other union leaders who will substantiate my statements and will be more than willing to work cooperatively with county management and the board to develop a culture of positive leadership at all levels of county government. ~ Cliff Robinson, AFSCME Local 34 Chief Steward (8/2010)