Thursday, February 09, 2012

Ethics Hotline Update

So how is that Ethics Hotline working out?

There's at least one documented case now in which a member of the staff at the City's Ethics office has revealed the name of a complainant to the person about whom the complaint was made. This was a clear and inexcusable violation of the confidentiality expectations. There may be others.

By the way, the revelation resulted in nearly immediate efforts to retaliate against the complainant. This, of course, is a violation of the anti-retaliation policies. This manager's confidence that he or she could retaliate with  security bespeaks of a dysfunctional culture. I would think that if I were already reported as having violated the ethics policy, the last thing I would do is dig myself in deeper by violating the anti-retaliation policy, but I guess that's not how those folks think.

Can anyone else offer a report on the new whistleblower hotline or the new Ethics policy? Can anyone report a success?

I know that there's an investigation still pending on a situation at Lowell. That has taken a while to work through.


Bird said...


Wow. One incident of a person having their name revealed essentially puts an end to the Ethics Hotline.

I'm not sure the process could ever recover from that, but the district needs to take strong steps to rememedy this, otherwise it's pretty clear that they are signing up for another Pottergate.

Bird said...

Maybe the "Ethics Hotline" needs to be outsourced to another entity or agency, so there's no means to reveal the identity of the complaintant.

Charlie Mas said...

To be fair, it appears that this was the one and only time that a complainant's name was revealed, and there have been a large number of other complaints and investigations made.

Can we hear from someone with a positive experience?

Charlie Mas said...

Does a single incident invalidate the whole thing?

Ballard-ite said...

That kind of behavior is intolerable - could not agree more with Bird that strong remedies are needed. Geez - why is it so dang hard for these people to get something so simple right?

t said...

Charlie, a single incident may not completely invalidate it, but unless immediate, strong, and very transparent measures are taken, it does considerably undermine an ethics hotline. They need to be trustworthy and 100% confidential to be effective.

What matters now is how this blatant violation is handled.

suep. said...

The most cynical interpretation of this, of course, is that the confidentiality breach was intentional, with the overall purpose of creating a chilling effect and scaring off others from reporting grievances, because the district, in truth, does not really want people to use the hotline.

But that would be too cynical -- wouldn't it?

Dorothy Neville said...

Sue, I don't think that is true. Partly I want to believe this was an honest mistake from people who really weren't thinking through how their actions were affecting the bigger picture. I have a hard time completely swallowing that though. So I am very conflicted. I am also disappointed and angry with how it was handled.

Here's the overview. The ethics hotline pamphlet that went to staff (and if you are staff and still have this, you can confirm and clarify) has a list of the types of things to report. The list includes something relating to harming children. I have seen the pamphlet but do not have a copy to confirm the exact wording. The point is: that staff were led to expect that this was for more than business ethics situations and financial mis-dealings.

So, a staff member who had reported some possible misconduct felt like they were being harassed by their supervisor, possibly in retaliation for reporting? (Honestly, I am being vague because I cannot draw the conclusion as to whether the staff person was or was not harassed, that's for investigators who can learn the entire story.) This staff person reported this to the ethics hotline and thought that the details would be kept confidential. However, when it got to the ethics office at SPS, they determined that it wasn't an ethics issue, but instead an HR issue but because allegations of behavior harmful to children was involved they had to do something about that as well, so they forwarded the complaint -- completely unredacted -- to HR and to Health and Safety, cc'ing a whole host of folks. (I have copies of these emails, I am not going on hearsay here, but on the actual emails written by Mr Cerqui to the complainant and with the list of everyone on the cc list.)

That was mistake number one. Mistake number two was not swiftly apologizing and publicly doing something to restore staff trust in the ethics hotline.

Yes, if there is an issue involving health and safety, YES the ethics office needs to alert the proper people. But in this situation they absolutely had the time and space to do that with discretion. There was no need share the whole complaint and break the person's anonymity. There may be other situations where time is of the essence and they might have to break confidentiality, but this wasn't it.

I spoke at length with Mr Wayne Barnett, the city ethics officer on this very topic. He told me that one must always be cautious in guaranteeing anonymity due to public disclosure laws, but that he and his office take confidentiality very seriously. In his years with the city, he has only had to breach confidentiality once. My hope, which I have expressed to Mr Treat, Director Carr and Mr Barnett, is that the city training would include a discussion of proper protocol.

Recently I saw Mr Barnett at a city function (a citizen forum on the city budget) and he said that there was discussion at the state level to tweak public disclosure laws to further protect whistleblowers.

Anonymous said...

Well, according to Wayne, you are never actually protected by confidentiality. Any form of communication with a public office is open to a FOIA request. This includes phone calls, emails, letters, etc.

You could contact the hotline anonymously, I suppose, if that works for you.


Dorothy Neville said...
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Dorothy Neville said...

My bad. Charlie is not speaking of the same situation I was. The situation I referred to was from before the city was involved, so is only the hotline and the district.

And Mr Barnett clarified that he didn't breach confidentiality in the situation of which we spoke, but was compelled to alert someone of a situation (without breaching confidentiality) against the desire of the complainant.

Dave W. said...

Nope "suep", not too cynical at all.

Charlie, I know the case you write of. I know of another case where it took me less than a minute to deduce the "whistlenlower" due to a ""less than confidential" process.

I warn others to be careful as I believe, the remaining forces of the Goodloe-Johnson regime within SSD are using this process it retaliate and harass anyone willing to speak out.

I learned as late as January incoming messages were arriving at the (Interim) General Counsels office.

I believe that inproper especially 6 months into a program that has been sold as confidential.

I have also "heard" (but don't have direct confirmation) that another staff member who made a report is now suing the District.

Caller beware. Its not over.

Eric B said...

This is not good, but how much it undermines the process depends on the actions at the District level and to some extent how high up the chain the subject of the complaint is.

If the subject of the complaint continues to retaliate against the complainant with impunity, then the system is completely broken. Heads should roll all over the place. If the subject of the complaint is in higher management at SPS, then the system would have to be called into question.

However, if the subject of the complaint has been hit with the HR hammer, demoted, transferred, and otherwise been read the riot act until whatever necessary investigations are complete and the subject can be fired for the retaliation, then there's a lot of hope for the system. They would of course have to fix the problem that lead to the disclosure in the first place.

The reason I differentiate between the levels of management is that I think there is a systemic difference between a low-level manager retaliating against a bottom level worker than an executive-level supervisor retaliating against someone lower in the chain. The former indicates the transparency culture hasn't worked it's way down the chain, and vigorous HR action will encourage it. The latter indicates that the attempt to change the culture is dead.

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