KALAMAZOO, MI — Kalamazoo County commissioners were confronted with some harsh truths during the board’s March 4 meeting, including feedback from employees who called the elected officials “dysfunctional” and “toxic” in an anonymous survey.
Minnesota-based consulting company deepSEE Consulting prepared a 22-page study in July, which recommended the county hire a diversity and inclusion officer. The study outlines responsibilities such as training employees, identifying key positions and promotional paths and developing diversity and inclusion performance reviews.
The survey found discrepancies between how employees rated their own cultural competency versus how they evaluated their coworkers, employers and county leadership, consultant Sara Tayor said.
County leaders’ lack of cultural competency feeds their unconscious bias and therefore leads to miscommunications, Taylor said.
The deepSee survey asked employees to self-evaluate their productivity and how miscommunications affect their ability to get work done.
Employees reported losing 15.4%, or 72 minutes per day, to miscommunication and misunderstandings. That lost productivity means the county suffers an annual loss of $6,703,361.43, based on average Kalamazoo County annual payroll of $43,985,311.24.
Commissioners were both shocked and skeptical of the nearly $7 million loss, and revisited it throughout their discussion Wednesday.
The staggering financial impact pushed the general opinion of the board toward follow the consultant’s recommendations of cultural competency training and hiring an officer dedicated to diversity and inclusion.
“Part of this issue is our own board culture and at the price that has been given we can’t afford not to do it,” Chairperson Julie Rogers said. “It is difficult to hear this information, but I think it’s critical to move our organization forward.”
Last month, the board debated how to best expand and legitimatize the county’s equity task force.
The equity task force was initially created to address the race disparity seen in Kalamazoo County’s infant mortality data, and to increase the county’s involvement with the collaborative Cradle Kalamazoo.
The task force recommended an outside consultant review the county’s cultural competency as an employer, a recommendation which prompted deepSee’s survey in spring 2019.
While pointing out flaws at the leadership level, the consultant was wary of engaging with an equity task force made up of community members until the commissioners first work on cultural competency among themselves.
“You literally do not have the current competence to take in everything that a community group might event tell you,” Taylor said. “Much less be able to respond to it.”
Commissioners agreed that the work needed to happen within, despite the information presented being “hard to swallow.”
Meanwhile, commissioners continue to question the impact that anticipated vacancies might have on the board, as some members have filed to run for other elected offices.
Democrats Rogers, Stephanie Moore, Christine Morse have filed paperwork for state House campaigns. Democrat Meredith Place has filed to run for county clerk.
Democrat Jen Aniano pointed out that if commissioners set the new standard for cultural competency, then that will be a legacy that continues beyond the current board.
“Organizational culture is not something that comes and goes with 11 people sitting up here,” Aniano said. “When you create a culture the purpose of it is to make it stay.”
Among the survey, there was a widespread perception of distrust and disrespect from the top down, Taylor said.
The board was serving as a role model of how to behave, Taylor said. Essentially creating a monkey-see-monkey-do mentality.
Taylor quoted from focus group discussions: “If the commissioners can say this, I can say this. If the commissioners can act this way with each other, I can act this way with my colleagues.”
Other discrepancies also included that while county leaders believe they are open to diversity and inclusion, people of color within the county do not experience diversity and inclusion efforts from leadership.
Focus groups discussions also aired out that people of color bear the weight of being the “one and only” minority in a department, and outside perceptions from the community suggest the county is not a minority-friendly employer, Taylor said.
“A real sense that if you’re going to work here as a person of color it’s going to be a difficult place to work,” Taylor said.
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