An employee survey revealing widespread dissatisfaction in the Salt Lake City-County Health Department has rocked the agency and prompted "crisis intervention."
Acknowledging that problems exist, Dr. Harry L. Gibbons, who built the department from the ground up 21 years ago, vowed Thursday to resolve them or "get out."Meanwhile, Commissioner Mike Stewart said several urgent steps are being taken immediately to patch up the rift between the workers and management, which he said has been brewing for six months.
It came to a head last week with the completion of a report by the University of Utah Survey Research Center. Detailed responses from 225 of the department's 237 employees revealed a "communication breakdown," a dysfunctional chain of command, and a widespread belief that supervisors are too harsh, unresponsive, aloof, disinterested and "paranoid."
Also, the report contained charges of harassment and one isolated criminal allegation involving falsification of a time card. That allegation was referred to the county attorney's office.
Commissioners discussed the survey with the City-County Board of Health during what participants described as a "very emotional and tense" closed meeting Thursday.
"The good news is that this does not appear to have impaired service delivery, and all of it is correctable," Stewart said. "There is no question that we've had an explosive situation here, but I believe it has been defused."
Stewart said the criticisms came as a shock to the five top administrators of the department - Gibbons, John Inch-Morgan, Lewis Garrett, Bonnie Bullock and Terry Sadler - who were frequently mentioned by name in the survey responses.
"I've been attacked before, but it hasn't had the sting like this before," said Gibbons. "I feel very badly about this. It hurts. I should have listened better."
In addition to the employee strife, officials were confronted by a crippling dispute between Gibbons and Humans Services Director Chris Segura. Gibbons has challenged Segura's role, arguing that the health department should have direct access to the County Commission rather than submitting budgets and policies through Human Services.
"We have some serious team building to do here, beginning with Harry and Chris burying the hatchet," Stewart said. And addressing a rumor that swept through the department this week, he added, "No one has suggested that Dr. Gibbons step down - not once."
The corrective action includes:
- A management consultant will be hired to define weaknesses and recommend changes.
- Jim Walker, assistant Human Services director, has been temporarily assigned to the health department as a roving trou-ble-shooter.
- Segura will attend all health board meetings.
- The health department will be required to report on its progress.
- Another survey will be taken in one year to determine whether improvement has occurred.
- Efforts will be pursued internally and possibly through the Legislature to clarify the respective roles of boards of health and county commissions.
Recognizing that he will be surrendering his Human Services portfolio in January, Stewart said an aide to commissioner-elect Brent Overson was included in Thursday's meeting.
Gibbons, whose communications skills are widely credited for the creation of the health department, said he is making an effort to bridge the communication gap with his employees. For example, he said he will spend more time visiting satellite operations and listening to worker concerns.
"We've got a great work product. No one disputes that. We're serving many more clients and offering more programs. We're swamped with spreading health problems such as tuberculosis and AIDS. The staff is overworked and conditions are overcrowded. A lot has got to change."