Outside investigation: City of Minneapolis has a toxic work environment, including racism

I have published then unpublished this post twice, not feeling quite right about the conclusions I’ve drawn.

Here is where I feel stuck.

The city of Minneapolis asked the lawfirm Greene Espel to conduct an outside review of staff complaints against Heather Johnson, the former City Coordinator and current City Operations Officer.

The review came in response to a complaints from 17 current and former staff in the City Coordinator’s Office, which housed the Division of Race and Equity. The staff wrote Johnston April 28, 2022, beginning: “This letter is the result of building frustrations about ongoing harm caused to current and past City Coordinator Office (CCO) staff, particularly Black and Brown staff. This harm stems from a toxic, anti-Black work culture …”

From summer, 2020 to Fall, 2021, all but one of the staff in the city’s Division of Race and Equity resigned, the letter said. There were eight resignations in all, including four African American women.

The report concluded that Johnston had not created a “toxic, racist workplace.” (That is not to say that there aren’t (or weren’t) workplace problems.)

The report said such problems are systemwide, and “are larger than a single person.”

While the report focused specifically on Johnston, it’s difficult to read it and not draw larger conclusions about the city’s workplace culture.

As the Star Tribune described it, the report “paints a landscape of perilous office culture, where racial bias and microaggressions — intended or not — are felt deeply amid the stress of a government bureaucracy” dealing with the stress of George Floyd’s murder by city police, and then returning to in-person work as the coronavirus pandemic waned.

The 26-page report has a number of redactions.

Here are my takeaways.

The report doesn’t exonerate the city

Portion of the redacted report.

According to the report: “Almost every Interviewee acknowledged that Minneapolis continues to struggle with racism and that there are employees at the City who have clearly exhibited racist behavior. Discussing the City itself, [name blacked out] emphasized that ‘if you look at disparities among races, Minneapolis ranks at the bottom. If I look at the City in that sense, we have a racist system.'”

The report’s final paragraph then minimizes the problem.

“City employees express ongoing concerns about microaggressions, and toxic politics within the Enterprise and City Coordinator’s Office, among other issues. Multiple Witnesses validated these concerns, but also offered the opinion that these are not ADHR [Anti-Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation Policy] violations—they are Enterprise-wide issues that must be addressed at the Enterprise level.”

Comment: It’s difficult to square the two paragraphs. On one hand, the report says almost every interviewee said the city continues to struggle with racism. On the other hand, it says it’s not about discrimination or harassment, but “Enterprise-wide issues,” a term that apparently encompasses microaggressions and toxic politics.

From the beginning, a glaring error

Race & Equity Division staff expressed frustration about their initial workspace, the report said, which they described as a windowless closet with “dead mice everywhere.”

It continues: “The Investigation revealed that, when these concerns were raised (i.e., a dead mouse was spotted), Johnston talked to the property services director and worked to move the Department to the second floor. The Department now occupies windowed and remodeled space on the second floor.”

The report lays out a factual description: What staff said and what Johnston said. It doesn’t draw conclusions. It gives the impression that the problem is solved because staff got a better workspace. It fails to recognize the resulting lack of trust. While it might not violate city anti discrimination policies, it raises questions.

If you’re truly concerned about race and equity, why would you put the race equity team in the worst possible office space? That decision sent a message to the Race & Equity Team, and surely affected how these staff perceived the city as an employer.

Thought experiment: A newly hired attorney arrives for their first day of work and is assigned a tiny windowless office with dead mice. How does the attorney feel about taking the job? How would a black attorney feel about taking the job compared to a white attorney?

Sidestepping the problem does harm

One interviewee said that City leadership “doesn’t seem to understand how to address race-equity concerns.” When Black staff raised concerns about a toxic, racist work environment, Johnston responded with “yes, everyone should be polite to each other in the workplace.”

Black staff expected a direct response to the harm they were experiencing.

Johnston recalled the meeting, and believed she said “respectful,” instead of “polite,” the report said. “Johnston acknowledges that ‘respectful’ may have sounded dismissive of the concerns articulated, but impresses that she didn’t intend to be dismissive,” the report said.

This doesn’t rise to a violation of the city’s anti-discrimination policy. It’s beyond the report’s scope to note that the impact of a person’s actions matter more than their intentions.

Thought experiment: A Good Samaritan helps a driver get unstuck from deep snow and ice. The driver accidentally runs over the Good Samaritan’s foot. The Good Samaritan starts hopping on their one good foot, clearly in pain. How would the Good Samaritan feel if the driver got out and said “That wasn’t my intention”?

Mayor Frey doesn’t seem to get it

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey.

Mayor Jacob Frey seemed to view the report as absolution. “The report speaks for itself,” he said, according to the Star Tribune. “It makes clear that Ms. Johnston took swift decisive action … to support her staff.”

Frey mischaracterized the report. It doesn’t describe Johnston’s actions as either “swift” or “decisive.”

Here’s what it said: “The specific concerns raised about Heather Johnston primarily relate to an alleged failure to communicate regarding back-to-work policies and a failure to appreciate and drive resolution of employee concerns about a racist and toxic culture. These concerns, however, have all been or are being addressed by Johnston.”

To state the obvious, had Johnston taken swift and decisive action — and resolved the problems — it’s highly unlikely the staff would have written the letter.

The mayor also misses the larger issue: BIPOC staff are unhappy and leaving city employment.

According to the report, the problems are “Enterprise-wide issues that must be addressed at the Enterprise level.”

What’s the plan?

2 thoughts on “Outside investigation: City of Minneapolis has a toxic work environment, including racism

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