City workers in Inver Grove Heights soon will be going back to school, in hopes of learning how to create an environment where respect prevails rather than rumor-mongering.
Officials are planning “Inver Grove Heights University” to help employees understand how the city works and what’s expected of them.
It comes on the heels of a workplace culture survey of city employees this spring that found City Hall lacks common goals and clear expectations, a pattern that leads to disagreements and fosters mistrust and fear.
“How do we treat each other on a daily basis?” City Administrator Joe Lynch asked. “How do we communicate with each other ... and what can I expect from you as an employee?”
The municipal retooling follows recent episodes that raised concerns. Lynch was suspended for three days last winter for making suggestive and insulting comments to an employee. In April, city clerk Michelle Tesser was put on paid administrative leave and is under investigation, though Lynch said those actions were unrelated to the survey.
“All of the patterns seem to have been in play long before the investigation [of Lynch] but became a ‘perfect storm’ in the aftermath of it,” according to the survey summary. “Staff seems to be tired of the drama and wants it to end.”
Of 42 City Hall employees, including the city’s seven department heads, 90% completed the survey. The city paid Twin Cities-based consultants Perme and Peterson Associates about $27,000 for their work.
According to the report, the culture at City Hall “lacks respect for knowledge, talent and pride” and needs to move away from “micromanagement” and “toxic communication.”
Lynch, who has been in his job since 2006, said the consultants warned city officials that since they asked for honest opinions they should be prepared for survey results that look bad.
“I did ask myself questions like, you know, ‘Is it really like this?’ ” he said. “But then I quickly recovered to, ‘But we can change it.’ ”
The city’s most positive scores related to employees’ job security and their intention to stay in their jobs.
The consultants helped the city draft an improvement plan to be carried out over seven months that includes developing a mission statement, organizing the “university,” implementing a code of conduct and having each department examine one process — for instance, building permits — for improvement.
Craig Waldron, a local government consultant and former city administrator, said the type of city hall environment seen in Inver Grove Heights “isn’t unheard of.”
“It can be limited to a particular department or a particular employee. Sometimes it can become fairly significant and fairly widespread,” said Waldron, who teaches public administration at Hamline University.
The problems might begin when an employee is disciplined and fellow workers take sides. Other times, a simple personality conflict can turn the whole organization toxic, he said.
What’s worse, workplace issues can affect citizens.
“This takes your eye off the ball and sometimes it causes a city not to operate as effectively and efficiently as they could,” Waldron said. But if organizations tackle the issue head-on, as Inver Grove Heights seems to be doing, he said, they can get past them.
Lynch said the process, which will continue into 2020 with new projects, has been beneficial.
“Everyone is aware of the fact that there’s no magic potion and [change] doesn’t happen in a single step,” he said. “It’s constant attention to focusing on changing that culture.”