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Korbel speech 'magnified' concerns about management style

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: June 16, 2014 - 5:34 PM

Updated at 5:17 p.m.

A strongly worded speech by the leader of the Minneapolis civil rights department is raising additional concerns in the wake of allegations that she is responsible for a “toxic” work environment.

A former city employee who recently settled a lawsuit with the city sent a copy of the speech, targeted at some employees' dissatisfaction with the workplace, to four City Council members last Monday, according to her attorney Brian Rochele. It comes several months after union representatives and former employees complained of a hostile work environment during Velma Korbel's reappointment hearings.

This week, the city's executive committee will hear an update on a proposal to have Korbel undergo management consulting. Cam Gordon highlighted the speech in an e-mail to constituents announcing the committee update.

"The recent release of the text of a speech that Director gave to her staff in June of 2013 has only magnified my serious concerns about the management of the department," Gordon wrote.

Gordon and three other council members -- Blong Yang, Andrew Johnson and Jacob Frey -- received the speech from Seema Desai, a former employee who filed an employment lawsuit against the city. That suit was recently settled for $38,125, according to city attorney Susan Segal.

The speech, which was referenced in the lawsuit, takes aim at employees Korbel feels are dragging the department down. She said they need to shape up and either grow accustomed to the department's culture or find another job.

"Let me tell you this: Michael Browne, Toni Newborn, Mike McHugh and Karen Francois know a lot of people in the Metro," Korbel said of other department leaders. "How hard do you think it's going to be if you try to advance your career, and you don't have these folk in your corner because of some boneheaded thing you did at the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department. Michael, Mike, Toni and Karen know a lot of people."

"The ones they don't know, I KNOW! We don't have to say anything bad about you. Badmouthing you makes us look bad. It's worse if someone asks about you AND WE DON'T SAY ANYTHING!!! A career is about integrity and relationships. You may be sitting there thinking, "I don't need you". Maybe you don't. Maybe you're secretly independently wealthy, or have wealthy parents or wealthy friends, and this job is just a hobby."

She anticipated that employees may complain of low morale in the next employee engagement survey. But she said that low morale is more likely the result of people gossiping, being lazy, practicing "thievery" and otherwise overblowing small issues.

"Some of you are unhappy here because you've convinced yourself that you need to be unhappy," Korbel said. "The fact is, we could give you everything you wanted today, and in six months, you would find another way to be dissatisfied. You insist on making those around you unhappy. By tearing them down; being vindictive; being unsupportive. You know who you are. Worse - I know who you are. You are being given notice today that I have instructed my division directors to assist you in finding your way out of this organization, if this behavior continues."

Korbel said in an e-mail to the Star Tribune that her job as a manager is to ensure employees reach their full potential.

"If I observe that there is behavior that detracts from a productive work environment, I try to counsel the employee(s) responsible, if possible," Korbel wrote. "If that is not possible, I will call the employees together to get on the same page regarding the department’s values for respect and accountability."

Several days after the meeting, Desai was suspended without pay for three days for creating a negative work environment, complaining to coworkers about unpaid overtime and retaliatory treatment, according to the civil complaint.

In March, Gordon successfully introduced a motion to have the city coordinator consult with the mayor's office and civil rights department on possible outside management consulting for Korbel. A status update on that is expected at Wednesday's executive committee.

Mayor Betsy Hodges said in a statement that she is committed to a "respectful, positive work environment for everyone at the city." She encourage employees to report workplace concerns.

“I have confidence in Velma Korbel’s ability to be an effective City leader," Hodges said. "In her time leading the Civil Rights Department, Korbel has driven significant improvements, leading to better results for the people of Minneapolis."

Hodges added that a management consultant has been retained and is already working with the department.

Korbel Speech

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