Wednesday, June 28, 2017

OnTrack Case Study, continued

OnTrack received criticism.    Effects, reaction, counter-reaction, disaster.

The travails of OnTrack--a southern Oregon addictions recovery nonprofit agency-- is a cautionary tale.   Businesses, non-profit agencies, politicians, and government agencies can learn from this.

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On June 18 this blog presented a commentary on a general failure of OnTrack to deal effectively with critics over operational problems.  Its communication failure has severely damaged the agency.   It went from an award winning and highly regarded program into one that lost contracts and may disintegrate, all in less than nine months.   

What went wrong?   They handled criticism poorly.  They looked baffled, leaderless, and not in control.  The let their critics tell their story.
Department of Labor

The whistleblower.  The most dangerous people to anyones freedom, finances, and reputation is a disgruntled former teammate, especially the disgruntled present or former employee.  The insider knows the story behind the scene and has credibility because he or she knows them from the inside.

Whistleblowers are useful.  They are protected by law.  The public tends to like and believe the person who appears to risk their job or reputation to tell the secret problem.  They are perceived as truth-tellers: the emperor has no clothes!  Or they are public protectors, revealing some crime or mistake, putting the public at risk.

Business owners, managers, agency heads all need to take notice:  Americans are disposed to define whistleblowers as the hero of the story.  It fits an archetype narrative, the good guy taking on the powerful guy.   The overwhelming weight of hero myth and fiction goes toward celebrating the whistleblower.  Erin Brockovich.  John Dean.  Robin Hood.  They have a phrase that rings nicely in heart and head: telling truth to power.  People love that notion.  It projects that justice will prevail.. 

What about Judas betraying Jesus?  What about the Rosenbergs?  What about Loose Lips Sinking Ships? 

Whistleblowers are heroes. 
Yes, they are real examples of treachery and secrets being revealed for bad purposes, but the overwhelming weight of narrative is the other direction.  People reading this blog need to stop and recognize the reality and risk in their own lives.   If your secretary or some other employee tells a story about you, to fellow employees, or especially to the media or to government regulators, he or she will have more credibility than you.  

Moreover, your secretary or other employee has legal protection, and the complainer cannot be retaliated against.  If the complaint is of an allegation of discrimination on any protected class, or something of sexual harassment or intimidation or pressure, then the charge must be investigated by third parties with you carefully excluded from the process so that you do not influence or taint it.  You are assumed to be guilty, or maybe a little guilty,  and likely to try to cover up the investigation.   Your employee's own subjective understanding of the reality of the situation--"I felt awkward by what I thought he was getting at, and I didn't want to say anything, but I didn't like it, especially after I got home that evening and thought about it"--can be the standard against which you will be judged. 

It is both a legal standard, and it is a public relations standard: your employee will have credibility.  You, presumably, have something to hide. 

OnTrack had a disgruntled manager who had a story to tell of Executive Director Rita Sullivan raising her voice, clapping her hands near her, and facilities that had problems.   The OnTrack board benched Dr. Sullivan so they could investigate.  I don't know the actual story but I surmise they were led by legal counsel to do this, so the investigation would have credibility in the face of the lawsuit that was threatened.

An an employer is in a public relations dilemma.  Their hands are tied.  In some cases they may have significant evidence that makes the whistleblower's credibility questionable, or worse, but they may be prohibited from revealing it.  Employees have privacy rights. Moreover, if in fact any complainer is not a credible observer it raises the question why the complainer was an employee in the first place.  The employee's employment is evidence of credibility.  The clearest way to end that evidence--firing the employee because he or she is dishonest or has a conflict of interest or some other impediment--is not available. 

The media wants to report the news, and controversies are news.  Again, readers of this blog with responsibility for the reputation of an organization take notice: complaints are news.  The headline will be the complaint: "Problems found."   For most news media, the initial story will not be headlined, "Agency refutes allegations."  (Actually, this is exactly how Fox News would cover criticism of Trump, with the refutation being the lead, however most of the time a fair and independent media will lead with the accusation, with a response to follow.)  

Whistleblowers have friends and allies.  There may well be more complaints, and the media and the public is primed to re-think the situation.  It isn't "a problem."  It is a pattern, a big problem.

 Readers of this blog who are in positions of authority may have lost the memory and recognition that employees have their own perception of what is fair and reasonable.  No one likes being told they are wrong or do do things a certain burdensome way, even if it is required by law.  Employees see their portion of the picture but not necessarily the big picture.  Employees get fired.  Employees see office politics.  Employees assume--suspect--that someone other than themselves got the promotion because of some undisclosed non-job-related reason.  In the case of OnTrack, new employee complaints came forward, and they went to the media and the media covered their complaints as a Big News Story.  It was a pattern!


Never appear to be leaderless.   Benching Dr. Sullivan left OnTrack without an expert spokesman who could represent that the organization was competent to handle the ongoing challenges and criticisms.

Don't accept the premise of the criticism.  Organizations have problems and employees will voice complaints.  The fault of OnTrack was that the organization's board, without Dr. Sullivan, accepted the premise of the criticisms that reports of facility problems (bathroom mold, dampness under carpet) were big deals, not routine deals.   The critics and the news media have every reason to want to see a report of a problem as significant and newsworthy.  The counter to that would have been a credible spokesman who put it into context.  Then the story could have been "Problems Faced and Addressed, just like Every Day.  Competent Management on Duty."   Instead, the story was: "Oh my God! Problems!"

Boards need to accept as a cost of doing business a deeper management bench.  I have been on multiple boards and I have faced withering criticism for attempting to have a management bench (especially during my term as County Commissioner.)   The general public and the employees and a resource-constrained management may all see a flat management structure as a virtue.   All the stakeholders may value "thrift."  They may perceive Assistant Managers and Deputy Managers as a sign of management laziness and unnecessary and top heavy management.  Executive Directors are inadvertent participants in this problem.  My observation is that they tend to be very highly motivated and hard working.  They want to provide value.  They want to set an example of dedication and devotion to the mission.   

Board members should take warning from the OnTrack example.  When Dr. Sullivan was benched to do the investigation the organization did not have an adroit, knowledgeable, here's-how-we-do-things leader.  The management bench was too thin.  It is a common problem but it needs to be defined as what it is, a problem.  Boards need to insist that their Executive Directors not do too much.

Get on top of the problem immediately.   Below is an op-ed article from Dan Horton, published in the Mail Tribune last Sunday.  Dan is an architect who had worked with OnTrack for many years helping them with their facilities.  This letter came five months too late to change the story.   It is the kind of story that likely would have changed the narrative, had it been part of the original public understanding of the complex work of the organization.   Better late than never, but late is too late.

A final note on my relation to the story:   I personally know and admire Rita Sullivan.  I have been a donor to the organization, both money and melons as a gift to employees and their clients.  My son worked there part time a few years ago doing filing for minimum wage.  I generally thought her leaving employment there was self destructive to OnTrack because it seemed to me from the outside to be a graceless way to push into retirement the visionary leader who had done so much to grow the organization.  I had thought a celebration of her work would have served their purposes better than terse announcements of separation.   But I am not angry with the OnTrack board.  I consider them more as victims, oddly inept,  baffled by a situation, perhaps poorly advised by counsel.   No doubt they were well intended but trapped by what they thought were their legal obligations to investigate problems and to say nothing that would get them in trouble. They bunkered.  It turns out that saying nothing is part of what got them in trouble.   They let critics tell their story and there was no counter story nor context.

I put the op ed below.  If the Mail Tribune asks me to remove it, I will do so immediately.  As inadequate compensation to the Tribune, let me urge readers here to subscribe to the newspaper for two reasons: one to be a better informed community member and citizen, and the other is to support an essential public service, a community newspaper.  We still have one and I am grateful for it.

Guest Opinion: OnTrack, community owe Sullivan an apology

As the architect who has worked with OnTrack for over 20 years, I am familiar with the facilities and maintenance of OnTrack properties. Dr. Rita Sullivan acquired these properties, some of which are over 50 years old, on behalf of OnTrack during her 39 years of hard work.
One of her main goals was to make certain that these properties were maintained at a level of safety and condition such that no one could point out which housing units were owned by OnTrack for low-income tenants. No properties were substandard.
I ask the community to drive by Stevens Place on Stevens Street, Sky Vista on Stewart Avenue/Orchard Home, and particularly the new affordable housing development next to Sky Vista. Sullivan worked for eight years to obtain funding for this project and achieved it only because of the recognition and respect she garnered statewide over those long years of work.
I know the properties inspected by DHS and OHA in January, months after Sullivan left OnTrack, were always well maintained during her tenure. It is disingenuous to allege unattended maintenance was the cause for the problems to follow. There was always good maintenance by Ontrack maintenance staff and always ongoing remodeling of OnTrack properties, continuous replacement of floors, furniture, appliances, windows, roofing, repair of walls and doors and so on. The OnTrack board was supplied with a capital needs improvement schedule which I put together in December 2015 for their use as a guide to items to be addressed in the immediate future and through year 25. Board members’ refusal to step forward and acknowledge this and to proclaim surprise is inexplicable.
Because the tenants who come in are initially not good tenants, are frequently still in the throes of addiction and do not understand how to keep housing clean, Sullivan made sure that there was constant vigilance, first and foremost regarding safety, that there were continual walk-throughs by staff to teach clients how to become good tenants. I myself have seen her physically work on these apartments to help clean them.
Ask any landlord how quickly a property can be destroyed — often within days. Without constant active oversight the conditions that the inspection agencies saw in January, months after Sullivan left, are not surprising. The mostly cosmetic makeover now being done by OnTrack will not survive the next batch of clients unless the board imposes the same kind of oversight that was required by Sullivan.

As both Tonia Moro and Rick Nagel worked at OnTrack during the summer of 2016, they should have known what was required. No child was ever hurt until after Sullivan left and oversight failed. Sadly, the recent newspaper timeline is incorrect in many respects, including this one.
Why is there no recognition and honoring of the 39 years of productive and dedicated service Sullivan provided rather than the continual trashing of her reputation over the condition of properties she carefully and comprehensively maintained? Does no one wonder why, when she left in November all contracts were in force, all inpatient and outpatient programs in Jackson and Josephine counties were running as usual, and the drug courts were operating as intended? DHS and OHA staff had been in the facilities, visitors from other counties and states had been there to review an example of best practices with the idea of replicating in their communities, yet two months after she left, OnTrack was in complete disarray?
Rita Sullivan is owed a vast apology and community recognition of her many years of service and sacrifice.
— Dan Horton is the owner of Daniel R. Horton Architect in Eagle Point.

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