It’s unclear if the commissioner of the Department of Social Services implemented all the findings of a human resources consultant hired last year to investigate allegations of bullying in the agency’s headquarters office.
The state spent $44,487.50 on the investigation. Agency Commissioner S. Duke Storen has refused to release any part of the report.
Nothing in the law forbids release of the report, or portions of it. Storen, through a spokeswoman, cited the discretionary attorney-client privilege provision of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act in withholding it.
Storen, through the spokeswoman, declined to be interviewed about the results of the bullying investigation, agreeing only to accept questions in writing.
He declined to answer whether he adopted all the investigation’s findings, conclusions and recommendations, and declined to answer whether he adopted all the findings, conclusions and recommendations of DSS human resources based on the report.
Last year, six people spoke to the Richmond Times-Dispatch for an October article reporting that complaints about bullying and workplace harassment within the Department of Social Services Division of Child Support Enforcement headquarters had been ignored within the agency. They spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for their jobs or careers.
Unresolved complaints were taken directly to Storen, who was appointed in January 2018 by Gov. Ralph Northam. Sources said a contractor was fired after making a complaint about workplace harassment.
Agency leadership decided to bring in Karen Michael, a respected Richmond-area lawyer and human resources expert, to do an investigation. Michael’s work fell under an existing contract between her and the Virginia Attorney General’s Office for her to serve as a special counsel to the commonwealth for employee relations and grievance matters.
Her report was completed in January, according to DSS spokeswoman Cletisha Lovelace, who answered questions by email.
After Storen reviewed the findings and met with agency leadership and staff, “disciplinary actions were subsequently issued,” Lovelace wrote.
“Commissioner Storen takes this, and all other personnel investigations, seriously. Upon completion of the investigation, he met with DCSE leadership and staff to discuss the investigation’s findings, communicate next steps, encourage an ongoing atmosphere of transparency and two-way communication, and reiterate the agency’s commitment to an agency-wide culture of mutual respect and inclusion.”
Resistance to an investigation
One high-level manager at DSS, Deputy Commissioner Craig Burshem, was not initially warm to the agency bringing in Michael, according to records obtained in a FOIA request.
“Before that decision is made I think it would be prudent to walk through a timeline of all the complaints that HR has received over the last several months in regards to DCSE (home office) and what action has been taken up to this point,” Burshem wrote Oct. 3 to two human resources managers. “Can you prepare a document that would reflect this interaction. I can do the same on my side and then we can meet and walk through what has transpired and decide whether a formal investigation is necessary.”
As previously reported by The Times-Dispatch, Burshem also on Oct. 11 emailed a DSS employee who asked about a news report about the complaints, saying: “Should hopefully fade away.”
On March 13, Burshem emailed DSS staffers to thank them for their cooperation and patience during the investigation and telling them to report bullying, harassment or violence to supervisors or human resources.
“Please do not assume that nothing will be done,” he wrote. “We want to help and are best equipped to do so when made aware of a problem. ... I am personally committed to ensuring that all of us embrace the new civility policy to create and maintain a safe workplace. Bullying, harassment and violence are unacceptable and harmful not only to individuals but to our organization as a whole.”
Burshem, a former assistant attorney general, declined to be interviewed for this article.
Storen declined to answer this question from The Times-Dispatch:
“Did the report say whether Craig Burshem knew about any of the allegations of bullying or workplace harassment? And if the report said he knew of them, did the report say whether or not he had adequately addressed the allegations?”
Storen cited “attorney-client privilege” in not answering that question. He would not agree to waive attorney-client privilege to allow the attorney, Michael, to discuss the investigation. Michael’s contract does not allow her to speak with news media about her work.
Jathan Janove, a human resources consultant in Portland, Ore., who has done workplace harassment investigations and writes a column for the Society for Human Resource Management titled “Putting Humanity Into HR Compliance,” said the Virginia DSS use of “attorney-client privilege” raises a question about whether the investigation was an independent or outside investigation, as DSS has represented.
“In my experience, an independent investigation means the employer doesn’t cloak the investigation in attorney-client privilege,” he said in an email. “Although paid by the employer, the investigator does not represent the employer and does not owe it a duty of loyalty or to protect its interests. The job of the independent investigator is to make findings and conclusions that represent his or her genuine understanding of the probable truth and professional judgment regarding what remedial steps should be taken.”
Michael is a freelance columnist on labor law for The Times-Dispatch and wrote generally about bullying in recent columns.
In March, she wrote that workplace bullies are typically long-term employees who are empowered by management to engage in such behavior.
Many employees experiencing co-worker bullying, she wrote, “will experience such health issues as depression, anxiety, stress, panic attacks and high blood pressure.”
In April, in a column about the leadership of UVA men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett, she wrote that she too often finds leaders “who are willing to take a shortcut on character to achieve a financial or other corporate goal.”
“For instance, sometimes an investigation will reveal bullying or harassing behavior of an employee. Despite these findings, some leaders will excuse the behavior and/or find a way to keep the employee because the employee is important or considered a ‘star’ or favorite.
“That same leader will turn around and send a message to all employees about his or her values. These leaders talk the talk — but don’t walk the walk.”