Colorado emergency management division needs “leadership intervention”

A leadership intervention is in order at Colorado’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management to address dysfunction among its top brass, a third-party review found.

The workplace assessment of the division found that more than one in five employees had experienced intimidating or threatening behavior in the workplace, even as 70% of staff members said they were satisfied with their jobs. The division is tasked with responding to the state’s natural and public health disasters.

“Given the consistent feedback from participants about the ‘dysfunction’ on the senior leadership team, a better culture can only be achieved by changing that dynamic and creating cohesion and accountability at the top,” wrote the third-party firm, Investigations Law Group, in a 29-page report released Thursday.

The outside assessment, announced by state leadership in July, came in response to a Denver Post investigation that found the head of the Office of Emergency Management, Mike Willis, had been suspended multiple times. He was accused of intimidating female employees, throwing objects in rage and berating staffers to the point that they feared the confrontation may turn physical.

The Post’s story, based on interviews with nearly two dozen current and former state employees, also found Willis routinely engaged in boorish, drunken behavior at industry conferences.

After Willis’ most recent suspension in March, Kevin Klein, the director of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, warned him that the next incident could be grounds for termination. State leadership, in internal memos, said Willis’s conduct put the division in a position of liability.

In response, the state hired Investigations Law Group to review the “overall operational health” and make recommendations for “improving the culture and structure of the division.”

The report, though, makes no specific reference to Willis or any other department leader. But it recommends that the division scrap its chief of staff position in favor of creating a deputy director post. Reviewers found the chief of staff setup has “proven ineffective” at bringing together all the teams under the division’s umbrella.

Under the recommended structure, a deputy director would sit between Klein, the division director, and the heads of the four offices that make up the division.

The division also should hire an independent party to work with leadership to “develop shared values, a strong plan for the division that clearly defines priorities and roles and responsibilities and to build trust and accountability with that team,” the report says.

Stan Hilkey, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety, which oversees the division, said in a statement that he strives to promote a “culture of continuous improvement.”

“We can only get better when we proactively and intentionally take the time to examine and reflect on how we’re doing,” he said.

In surveys detailed in the report, 17% of employees said they had witnessed bullying at the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, and 22% said they had seen intimidating or threatening behavior in the workplace. Nearly three-quarters of the participants (73%) said they had not seen or experienced either in their time working for the division.

Only 58% of those who experienced misconduct reported the issue and 36% of those who witnessed the misconduct reported it, the review found.

“The survey indicated that there is opportunity for DHSEM to focus on building a strong workplace culture, rooted in respect, and to ensure inappropriate behavior is addressed,” the report’s authors wrote about the division.

Most employees, though, said they were “satisfied with their job, feel respected by their manager and peers, and are proud to tell others that they work at DHSEM.”

The workplace assessment caps a tumultuous period at the division. In the last two years, the state has conducted four internal investigations centered on employee concerns and complaints about leadership.

In addition to three probes into Willis’ conduct, a department staffer alleged in a complaint last summer that leadership created a “toxic work environment” that includes “yelling and showing a lack of respect” toward its employees.

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