Human services divided

By Emily Bialkowski
Caledonia Argus


There is a persistent divide in the Houston County Human Services Department, according to a consultant the county hired to complete an organizational review of the department.

Employees are either aligning with the current leadership or not. These “camps,” as he called them, create “an inability to have open and honest conversation between management and the staff.”

The consultant, David Unmacht of Springsted Inc., presented his findings at the Jan. 22 Houston County Board meeting.

Before he even began, Houston County Commissioner Justin Zmyewski requested that county personnel not record the event. His position was supported by County Attorney Jamie Hammell, who said, “My situation with it is that we don’t videotape any of our other meetings. From a legal perspective, why make an exception for this?”

To be sure, members of the public could certainly record the event, it’s just not a practice of the county to do so.

No one objected, though questions about video recording did begin to delay the presentation.

“Whether it’s taped or not won’t change what I have to say. I have a pretty important job this morning, and I want to get on with it,” Unmacht said.

With that, he began.

“This is significantly and largely an investigation on workplace culture in human services, and this is going to be uncomfortable at times,” he warned.

Unmacht began his investigation in September 2012. He interviewed over 40 people and distributed an employee survey that garnered an 87 percent response rate, or 26 of 30 human services employees.

With a stack of papers four inches high, Unmacht said his analysis shows two reoccurring themes for improvement.

First, “There is a lack of trust, respect and an inability to have open and honest conversation between management and the staff. There is a strong perception that ‘grudges are held’ and that raises doubts about personal agendas, ethics and integrity. A sample includes:

“People are afraid to be seen talking to each other; people are pitted against each other; there is a fear of retaliation; our opinion does not matter; we are watched, scrutinized, micromanaged; our workplace is not healthy; waiting for the ‘hammer to fall’; feels oppressive at times,” his reports states.

Second, “The social work unit has not had to be accountable for many years. Because of this, as well as a revolving door of supervisors over the past few years, there has been ‘little or no follow through,’ which has caused a ‘lack of accountability, missed deadlines, missing data to the point where stats are skewed and funding streams damaged.’ The unit is slowly getting

better with better supervision and accountability. Expected accountability has been clarified and all the staff are being held to the same accountability, which was not the case before. Morale is low and turnover is high because some people do not like change. And change is the one constant in the department,” the report states.

Not to discredit the hard work and successful outcomes of the department, several strengths were listed:

• Dedicated and caring people who are committed to customer service and working with the clients

• Skilled and knowledgeable workforce who are willing to help and support each other

• Schedule flexibility

• General communication between coworkers across all units with different departments communicating very well.

Unmacht spoke for an hour and 20 minutes straight with no interruptions or questions. His observations boiled down to the fact that in three years there have been three different leaders.

He suggested either making the interim director permanent and giving her the support tools she needs to lead the staff out of this quagmire or hire a new director not from the ranks of the current staff.

He combed over 18 pages of findings and said accountability for these issues falls on everyone in the room, from county commissioners to human services staff. “Everybody has skin in this game. You’re not going to get out of this culture unless everyone steps up and says ‘here’s my role,’” Unmacht said.

He said future discussion will not be easy when trying to address this problem but that debate and decision making must occur.

“This is a thoughtful, serious conversation you have to have,” he said.

After Unmacht opened the presentation up to questions, the room sat silent; it was undoubtedly a lot to digest.

Zmyewski suggested the board adjourn so the information could sink in a little.

The topic will be addressed again, though a specific date was not mentioned.