When Andrew Benson was promoted to a supervisor position at Sedgwick County Emergency Communications in 2017, it wasn’t a position he expected to leave after just two years.
“I thought it could be a real career path for me,” Benson said. “Where I was doing good in the world.”
As his colleagues took 911 calls and dispatched ambulances, police and firefighters, Benson said he put his all into the job.
“I realized that it wasn’t just the citizens of 911 that we were helping,” Benson said. “In my role, I could be a person to help the employees – to be there, to help them with the struggles of the job. Because it’s not an easy job.”
But in 2019, Benson left. He cited the department’s leadership, which he said created a toxic work environment.
“It wasn’t evolved, it wasn’t sophisticated, it wasn’t professional,” Benson said. “It was quite offensive to watch how other supervisors treated their employees.”
Leadership and supervision was the primary reason employees chose to leave Sedgwick County’s payroll in the past three years, according to a survey the county conducted this summer. The document unearthed a bounty of concerns regarding leadership at several county agencies, along with allegations of discrimination, harassment, bullying and racism.
Elora Forshee, director of Sedgwick County Emergency Communications, said the department has been working over the last six years “to grow into a culture we want it to be.” The department is launching an employee advisory board in January and is working with the human resources department to enhance training for supervisors.
“We want every employee to feel cared for,” Forshee said.
Forshee declined to comment on Benson’s complaints.
At the time of the survey, the county was seeking to staunch “unprecedented” vacancies: On July 12, the county had 26 openings in Emergency Communications, 21 in Emergency Medical Services, and 175 in COMCARE, the local mental health authority. Little has changed since then – as of Nov. 1, the county reported 25 vacancies in Emergency Communications, 22 in EMS, and 174 in COMCARE.
Survey indicates dissatisfaction
The survey, which The Wichita Beacon received through a Kansas Open Records Act request, garnered anonymous responses from 186 ex-employees across at least 28 departments who chose to leave employment with the county. It points to systemwide dissatisfaction with leadership.
County Manager Tom Stolz said the response rate for the survey was relatively low – just 15% of the 1,247 possible respondents. The highest numbers of responses came from COMCARE, the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office and the Sedgwick County Health Department.
Smarter HR Solutions, a Houston-based human relations consultancy, conducted the survey between July 9 and Aug. 9. It was sent to former county employees who voluntarily left their positions from 2018 to 2021. The survey, which cost $23,546, was designed to “gain an understanding of the respondents’ reason(s) for departure as well as gauge the culture of the organization and identify its strengths and weaknesses,” according to a report Smarter HR Solutions produced about the results.
The survey brought to light a plethora of grievances with supervision and leadership.
“Supervisor/leadership was the #1 concern among former employees of Sedgwick County, regardless of year of departure and for all levels of experience except 10-plus, for which retirement was the #1 reason and supervisor/leadership was a close second,” according to the report.
Management and leadership was also the top response to a question asking if the county could have done anything to change employees’ minds about leaving.
Former employees also expressed concerns about how rewards and discipline were meted out. Some 74% of respondents said they disagreed or strongly disagreed that job performance was rewarded or disciplined consistently among employees.
Forty-nine percent of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that they felt valued by their supervisors.
The report did note some improvement in the perception of management in 2020 and 2021. Departures over compensation also increased in those years.
The impetus behind ex-employee survey
At a Sedgwick County Commission meeting on June 23, a request from District Attorney Marc Bennett to increase the salaries of assistant district attorneys evolved into a conversation about employee retention in the county.
Bennett said assistant district attorneys were leaving his office to take higher-salaried jobs elsewhere.
“I guess I would like to know, what is your process for exit interviews?” County Commissioner Jim Howell asked. “There are all kinds of reasons people leave jobs.”
“We have never done a formalized ‘Sit down and fill this thing out,’” Bennett replied.
Howell said that after the public conversation, he pushed the county privately to conduct exit interviews with employees who left Sedgwick County EMS. A July investigation by The Wichita Eagle found that the county’s EMS no longer met national accreditation standards after Dr. John Gallagher, the director of the department, took charge in 2019. Gallagher resigned in July, after the investigation.
Soon after the conversation with Howell, Smarter HR Solutions sent out the exit surveys. At the time, the county was facing vacancies in EMS, Emergency Communications, COMCARE, facilities maintenance and Corrections.
“Part of the reason we did (this) is our current system we have for exit surveys doesn’t always capture employees before they leave, so we don’t receive feedback,” said Chief Human Resources Officer Sheena Schmutz.
County response: Increased training and pay, new policies
Survey respondents explicitly named current leaders of at least three departments as what they liked least about working for Sedgwick County. Respondents also leveled a range of allegations about the county’s workplace culture – from being a “boys’ club” to harboring a culture of retaliation to having problems with sexual harassment.
Stolz said the survey results did not instigate the county to investigate the leadership of any specific departments, except for one instance where names were included in the survey. The county declined to specify who was investigated, citing privacy for personnel matters.
“By and large, these statements are so general that we really can’t focus an investigation on any one entity,” Stolz said. “We have to remember that these employees were able to respond anonymously to this. We don’t know the names of these people. We have no way of contacting them.”
Instead, Schmutz said that in the past year, the county has rolled out a seven-week supervisor training program on communication, coaching, conflict resolution and professionalism, among other things. Since September 2020, about 70 supervisors of the 600 to 800 in the county have completed the training. The training takes place twice a year and includes 25 supervisors at a time.
“This issue of training is a huge realization,” Howell said. “We didn’t really have a robust requirement to have that type of training, and that’s where we’re headed now. We’re going to become a lot more formal with that.”
Additionally, the county passed several new human resources policies in October, including an employee code of ethics and a dispute resolution policy. The dispute resolution policy is meant to address interpersonal conflicts between county employees or between employees and the county, and it specifically prohibits retaliation. The county is also “going to unroll a radically different exit policy” in 2022 that includes exit surveys, Stolz said.
The county has also focused on improving pay after compensation became a more frequent reason for employee departures in 2020 and 2021, Stolz said.
The county passed a policy Aug. 25 to award sign-on bonuses ranging from $500 to $5,000 for some new employees in COMCARE, Emergency Communications, Corrections, EMS and facilities maintenance. The bonus is awarded to workers after 60 days of employment.
The county is also reclassifying 1,637 positions to higher pay levels beginning in 2022 and allocating $20 million of its American Rescue Plan Act money to pay county employees for hours spent doing essential work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve got to fix our staffing to some degree,” Stolz said. “And we do that through aggressive hiring and pay. And then we move forward with the supervisory training so that our supervisors do better.”