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May 21, 2022

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Clark County officials hope to boost employee morale

Survey of staff shows negative trend; steps are being taken to try to reverse it

By , Columbian political reporter
Published:

Clark County Manager Mark McCauley has a lot on his mind, evaluating policies, writing contracts, overseeing departments and other tasks. Lately, he’s given himself another thing to think about: What can he do for his employees?

Since 2011, the county has conducted two surveys of its employees, probing their views on their work environment and management. The results of the most recent survey of 1,240 employees (80 percent of the county’s workforce) have McCauley concerned.

“The atmosphere and the climate at the county, and the way the employees felt about working here, declined,” he said. “It got worse.”

Human Resources Department Director Kathleen Otto said that the survey found that employees felt positively about their coworkers but had concerns about the county’s political dynamics that contributed to cynicism and eroded trust. The survey also found that employee responses on procedural fairness, likelihood to quit and other issues were moving in the wrong direction.

For instance, surveys asked employees questions on a 1-to-7 scale meant to gauge their work engagement. In 2011, the mean response was 5.13. In 2014, it dropped to 4.83.

In response, the county is reviewing its personnel policies and hired a consultant to train the county’s top officials in a bottom-up leadership philosophy that seeks to put employees first.

McCauley and others hope their efforts pay off. They’ll find out this spring when the results of a similar study are due.

“If our score doesn’t improve, I’m going to be heartbroken,” McCauley said. “I can’t imagine they would get lower than they were in 2014.”

McCauley said that some county departments, such as the auditor’s office or public health, scored well. For instance, nearly 89 percent of employees in the auditor’s office gave positive responses when asked about job satisfaction. In public health, 84 percent gave positive responses when asked about work engagement.

But he said that employees elsewhere weren’t as positive. He pointed to the now-defunct Department of Environmental Services, where 58 percent of employees gave responses indicative of “organizational cynicism” and only 26 percent gave strong indications that management negotiated honestly.

In 2013, Don Benton, then a state senator, was hired to lead the department over objections over his lack of qualifications. Benton was let go in 2016, when the county dissolved the department, and is now suing the county for $2 million.

More broadly, McCauley said he suspects part of the reason behind the county’s morale problems stems from discord on the county council that appears to have abated after John Blom and Eileen Quiring replaced Councilors David Madore and Tom Mielke, respectively.

“It was just a very contentious atmosphere and environment, and I think people in this community and even elsewhere in the state were looking at us and wondering, ‘What’s going on in Clark County?’ ” he said. “It’s hard to keep employee morale high when you have that kind of atmosphere in an organization.”

After the 2014 survey was completed, Otto said that the county formed teams of employees to evaluate workplace policies. She said the county has begun offering more training on how to navigate the county’s work environment, including subjects such as career advancement, conflict resolution and other topics. She also said the county’s policies are also being reworked to bring greater accountability to employees and supervisors.

One of the county’s central goals is to change its workplace culture, starting at the top. To that end, they’ve hired Chris Meade, an executive coach and founder of Leadership Alive Inc., to train county bosses in the Servant Leadership model.

The Servant Leadership model was developed in 1970 by Robert Greenleaf, an AT&T executive and writer, and elements of it have been embraced by companies ranging from Southwest Airlines to Whole Foods. Servant Leadership seeks to invert the traditional top-down leadership pyramid, and holds that workers will be more productive if their bosses put their needs first.

“It’s an others-centered leadership model,” said Meade. “It will have a trickle-down effect and help (employees) flourish and maximize their full potential.”

So far, the county has paid Leadership Alive $57,899 since 2015, according to county records. According to Christina Monks, a senior representative in the county’s Human Resources Department, 98 county managers, supervisors and lead workers have undergone Meade’s course that’s held one day a week over five weeks. There are plans to train more than 100 more, according to Monks.

According to Monks, Servant Leadership will mean different things in different departments, but it generally aims to give employees more say in decision-making, as well as opportunities for training and feedback.

McCauley points to the county’s Information Technology Department as an example of how the county has used this approach to improve morale. In 2012, the county commission voted to enforce a bargaining agreement that had been rejected by the county technology workers guild. Marian Croteau, president of the guild, said at the time that morale was “at an all-time low” for her members. Then department was then split into two departments, and both had morale problems, according to the 2014 survey.

Now, Croteau said, things have improved dramatically after management reversed its top-down approach and put more focus on the employees. She said their job classifications were changed, allowing employees to receive training and work on a broader range of tasks.

“We’re becoming more and more of a team,” said Chris McCombs, an IT professional. “You feel you have a voice.”

Columbian political reporter

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