In 2014, allegations of employee mistreatment and racial disparities in the Durham’s water management department were first brought to light when a group of former employees, who said they were wrongly terminated or disciplined while working for the city, went to the Human Relations Commission. The HRC then spent months investigating the department, including interviewing former employees and having former employees come speak to the commission.
In November 2015 the HRC sent nine recommendations to the city council and city manager, which included requiring racial equity training, a review of disciplinary action, and increasing the scope and accessibility of the city’s grievance policy. Then, in January 2016, city manager Tom Bonfield responded to each of the nine recommendations.
Since then, there have been quarterly reports from the human resources department; those reports haven’t found any “inconsistent application of disciplinary actions.” From January to July there were twenty-four technical review submissions received by the HR department. Of those, ten employees disciplined (about 42 percent of the reviews) were black, and fourteen (about 58 percent of reviews) were white. Deputy city manager Bo Ferguson says the HR department must “concur with whatever discipline that has been recommended” but also provide an analysis of the discipline. That analysis allows the city to see if there have been any trends. So far, Ferguson says, the reviews have not found any inconsistencies.
Now, two years after that initial complaint, a new letter has surfaced that says things aren’t getting any better.
The new allegations, from an August 12, 2016, letter anonymously sent to the city and obtained by the INDY, does not name any specific members of the department. The letter writer said the department is an “unfair, hostile work environment” and the employees are under a “tremendous amount of stress.”
“The issues in the Department of Water Management are in all areas, not just one particular area. There are certain Upper Management employees who are slandering employee’s [sic] names, credibility and work ethic in meetings, e-mails, or in the office,” the letter continues.
Because there are no specific allegations, it’ll be difficult for the the city to pinpoint their source. Even though there are no specifics, the letter does allege that management “has been shuffling employees around from different positions across the entire department and keeping write ups in house as a way to keep the write ups out of Human Resources as not to create a paper trail to document employees so when they actually terminate the employee they will not have a paper trail.”
Ferguson says that, “regardless of what the data was telling us,” there were continued concerns about mistreatment, so the city has begun implicit bias training within the department. The department is also seeking to hire more diverse employees.
“The department is continuing to report out to its employees to increase diversity to recruit [from places] where we have a higher likelihood to get a diverse candidate pool,” Ferguson says. “We were certainly concerned and upset to get the anonymous letter. [But], at this time, it doesn’t appear to line up with the data.”