Best of 2018: Investigation into the 'toxic' culture inside Seattle’s HR department

A view of the Seattle Municipal Tower, where Seattle Human Resources Department is housed, on Jan. 19. Credit: Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut

This is the second article in a two-part series.

Before the stroke, there were the migraines. Linda Leong had spent nearly 30 years working in the City of Seattle's Human Resources Department as a compensation analyst, a job she loved. But the micromanaging, the reprimands, the yelling, the confusion and the fear of the past year were building in layers, and so were her headaches. Co-workers started to notice her paling and not smiling as much.

It happened one day in the office. As she was being scolded in a meeting with her bosses for working past her pre-approved hours, the tension that had built over months and years finally found the weak spot in her brain. Part way through the meeting, she began to hyperventilate, her whole body shaking, before she slumped in her chair. She recalls hearing what was happening around her, but couldn't speak.

Co-workers speak glowingly of Leong, 56. "She is the most dedicated employee anyone could ask for, an elegant, hardworking, knowledgeable woman," one colleague told Crosscut. Her performance reviews were positive and, after so much time in the city, Leong believes she'd streamlined the process for updating compensation processes.

But the way her supervisors lurked near her desk, occasionally slamming notepads down when frustrated, the way her work was being second guessed, and the confusion of new structures inside the department soured the job Leong says she loved to do. She blames it all for causing the stroke.

The story of Leong's health issues spread through the department, as had other stories of perceived mistreatment. For many, she was not an outlier, but in fact symbolic of what employees repeatedly described as a "toxic" work environment, one pushed to the breaking point as former Mayor Ed Murray and former director of the department Susan Coskey sought to reshape a decades old approach to HR in the City of Seattle.

In accounts from more than 20 current and former Human Resources employees and city employees who work directly with the department, a picture emerges of an office wrought with discontent, frustration, anxiety and even fear. Talking with Crosscut, employees (most of whom requested anonymity) tell of a place where people are hired to do one thing but asked to do something entirely different; where staff feel their jobs are perpetually at risk; where expectations are unclear; and where criticizing the leadership team is intolerable.

Turnover there in the last two years is rampant: In a department of roughly 100 employees, there have been 72 departures since 2014. In that period, according to public records provided to Crosscut, 18 people stayed for less than a year. After being introduced in an all-staff meeting and going desk to desk visiting workers, one high-profile leadership hire, brought on to coordinate the consolidation effort, stayed for only six weeks.

Thanks to the office's climate, employees recall crying on a daily basis and witnessing co-workers do the same. Multiple employees described heightened and sustained anxiety, with several taking medical leave, others receiving anxiety medication, still others seeing therapists for their stress. Two employees confirmed to Crosscut they perceived the environment as so "hostile" they'd taken their complaints to the city's ethics department, which, they said, was sympathetic but hamstrung.

At least one employee filed a complaint of age discrimination, an outstanding case which was found credible enough to warrant further investigation. In one HR unit, there were so many complaints that former Director Susan Coskey brought in a former investigator for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn, New York, to conduct interviews with employees on their way out.

"HR is not there for employees; HR is there to protect the city," said one former Seattle Department of Human Resources employee, who left after only a year due to the stress. "I would not trust HR to investigate anyone. I would get a lawyer."

When Leong was diagnosed with a transient ischemic attack — a mini-stroke that wouldn't have permanent repercussions but can often be a warning of a larger incident — she decided to retire, even if it was early. It "was the right decision to take care of my health," she says.

On her final day, Leong received an emailed reprimand for staying beyond her pre-approved hours the night before. And as she lingered into her final evening, cleaning her desk, management called security to escort her away. "That was a shock and gave me the message that I was an unwanted employee being fired for cause rather than a valued employee going into retirement," she said.

Although Coskey later issued an apology to Leong and gave her a hug, her unceremonious exit reinforced a building cache of evidence that there was nowhere worse in the City of Seattle to work than its own HR department.

HR in the City of Seattle is a disparate system, in which many individual departments run their own offices. These run parallel to the city's central Seattle Department of Human Resources, which does citywide administrative tasks and handles personnel issues for smaller departments.

Mayor Jenny Durkan is dissatisfied with this structure amid concerns that the diffuse system leads to inconsistent implementation of policies, a lack of accountability for how employees are treated and such poor record-keeping that the mayor told Crosscut that she doesn't even know how many people have filed accusations of sexual harassment and gender bias.

"At any given time as the mayor if I said — 'Do we have a problem with sexual harassment? How many complaints have been brought?' — no one could answer that," Durkan said. "They were settling things in darkness."

Durkan comes into office uniquely positioned to shape the direction of human resources in the City of Seattle. When she was inaugurated in November, the city was already in transition: Her predecessor, Ed Murray, began a process of transferring all HR authority out of individual departments and into the city's centralized Department of Human Resource. The task is incomplete, delayed until 2019.

Durkan says she supports continuing consolidation as a means to make the city's policies and procedures more consistent. Frustrated by the lack of any unifying approach to HR, she's already instructed all departments to give the centralized personnel department 30-days notice if they intend to settle a sexual harassment complaint.

And as Crosscut reported Thursday, the idea of consolidating HR into one department is appealing to employees who have felt their harassment complaints have fallen on deaf ears.

But considering complaints from employees in the central HR department, the new mayor may find herself caught between what is now a diffuse and opaque system, where employees receive inconsistent service and complaints are settled in secrecy, and a centralized personnel department with a frustrated workforce, unconvinced it is structured to handle HR adequately.

The environment at the central HR department wasn't always this way. Employees who'd been around since before 2010 describe an office that functioned with relative ease, if not the occasional struggles encountered by any large department. "We had a great unit when I began in the Workers’ Compensation Unit eight years ago," one employee wrote in an exit survey. "I had people tell me they were jealous of how great of a team we had and that we were happily working."

But as consolidation began early in Mayor Murray's tenure, there was a marked shift in how the department was run. Units were restructured, supervisors were laid off and new people put into place.

The changes were ordered by Murray, but carried out by Coskey. She came to lead the department from a long and successful career as an attorney, then as a personnel consultant. With the firm Seabold Consulting Group, she uncovered improper spending at the Port of Seattle. She also worked for Bright Spring Consulting, which has contracts with Amazon, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Microsoft.

Under her leadership, things became more strict. Written reprimands, once a rarity, were being "handed out like candy." Employees recount witnessing colleagues being yelled at in public places by their superiors.

The drive toward consolidation was so intense, employees began to fear ever disagreeing publicly. One member of the department's leadership team described colleagues withholding criticism for fear of disagreeing with Coskey and the direction set out by the mercurial, sometimes overbearing Murray.

"If management makes a decision, you go along," said another employee. "If you speak up, you're treated terribly."

Meanwhile, new employees described feeling shocked at how tense everyone was. "It's all this nebulous, secret communication," said another former employee. "If you send an email to someone above your manager, you'll get yelled at. It feels really scary."

Frustrated workers describe doing months of research on a project, making a recommendation and then watching as the leadership team decided to go their own direction. "In nine months, I probably did four hours of work" that resulted in anything, said one employee who resigned after less than a year due to stress.

Coskey declined to be interviewed on the record for this story.

The tension within the department was evident in employees' mental state and the pace of turnover. "I was told by my physician I needed to quit my job or that it would kill me because of the anxiety and stress that the environment was producing," reads the exit interview of the employee whose unit had once functioned so well. "When I said I couldn't yet is when I was placed on medication so that I could show up to work. . . .When I shared this with others, I found that 80% of my unit was also on medication for the same. When I spoke to others in the department but different units, the message was the same, they left or were on medication. Since leaving the City I have been able to stop taking medication."

"I can count on both hands the number of people who had to leave for work-related stress," another former employee who worked closely with Coskey told Crosscut. "I took an extended vacation this summer and then said I'll try to make it to the end of the year. I lasted three weeks. My anxiety started to get out of control. I started to have panic attacks away from work. I'm a social person, but I stopped going out."

There was an irony to the angst within the department: This was the personnel department, where the city's mission for diversity and employee satisfaction was supposed to originate. But as leadership preached equity, four former and current employees of color in the department complained to Crosscut of being treated poorly. "They want diversity, but they don't know how to deal with us," said one woman, calling people of color the "bellwethers" for deeper issues. "They preach a gold standard, but they do the opposite."

Two employees told Crosscut they took their complaints to the city's ethics department and said that others had as well. But employees were told that toxicity was not an ethics violation in and of itself. Head of the Seattle Ethics and Elections Department Wayne Barnett declined to comment.

In one troubled unit, Coskey's former employer, Seabold Group, was brought in to interview exiting employees. A former investigator for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn, Kris Cappel, started conducting hour long interviews, asking staff about their direct supervisors, work environment and even Coskey. "It felt like an hour therapy session. They wanted names, scenarios," said one employee who was interviewed. "It was kind of questions that built on questions." Cappel did not respond to a request for comment.

Durkan has been conducting outreach to city employees, including via a citywide email request for feedback. At least three HR employees have forwarded complaints, either sent to Crosscut as well or obtained through public records requests, directly to her office.

Reads one message sent to Durkan: "Had we simply done what was originally envisioned and conducted a thorough internal review of policy/procedure through an equity lens and developed a system for close communication between department based HR and [the central Seattle Department of Human Resources] we would already be up and running and would have saved countless hours and dollars."

In an interview with Crosscut, Durkan said she was committed to the consolidation, convinced that the city's current de-centralized system does not serve the city well enough. If there are workplace issues, she said, then those can be addressed. "How do we continue to move the consolidation of HR so we can continue to meet our goals while at the same time address those people that are unhappy in the workplace and figure out if there are things we need to change?" says Durkan.

Shortly after Durkan became mayor, Coskey resigned. In a statement at the time, Durkan said Coskey had "served our City well for years." Melissa Beatty became the acting director after her exit.

In an internal email announcing her resignation, Coskey thanked her staff for the "efforts to promote excellence in HR and greater equity for all our employees through citywide programs and strategies, including HR Consolidation (which I know for some has required more than a small leap of faith!). In leaving, I have full confidence in the City HR leadership and teams who remain to continue moving the City forward, and I thank you in advance for supporting their ongoing efforts."

For now, it's a wait-and-see period for many employees.

Although Durkan ultimately supports the consolidation, she says she's not so dogmatic about it that she wouldn't pause and adjust as necessary. "It's kind of like stepping in a river that's flowing and the dam's three quarters of the way built," says Durkan of inheriting the process from her predecessor. "I'm not a person who's going to reinvent the wheel if I don't have to. I'm going to see what's working, but not be afraid to change how we implement it if we need to."

Read the first article in this series: Frustrated with HR, City employees break silence on sexism and harassment


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.