Gov. Kate Brown today released the results of a four-month investigation into the culture at the state's economic development agency, Business Oregon. The report largely cleared agency director Chris Harder and his management team of allegations of unequal treatment and misspending.
As WW first reported in April, the investigation stemmed from complaints from numerous current and former employees about the culture in the 140-person agency, which they said was replete with discrimination against women and older employees.
In its investigation, the Portland law firm Perkins Coie interviewed 45 current and former employees, 29 of them women. Many of those interviewed shared a dim view of the agency.
"There is widespread and strongly felt distrust among the staff that will require proactive management and meaningful change to turn around the low morale at Business Oregon," the report says.
Although investigators found the agency is battered after cycling through three directors, two strategic plans and absorbing budget cuts over the past four years, they were unable to substantiate the complainants' primary legal claims: that Harder and Business Oregon managers created a hostile work environment; that they discriminated against women and older employees; and that they improperly forced some employees out of their jobs.
"While our investigation revealed discrete allegations of offensive conduct, we did not find evidence of a widespread toxic work environment or a pattern of discrimination against females or older employees," wrote Thomas Johnson and Edward Choi, the Perkins Coie lawyers responsible for the report.
"While morale is thus unquestionably low at the agency, our investigation did not find evidence of systemic harassment and offensive behavior toward female or older employees, nor were we able to substantiate the allegations of a 'bro club' at Business Oregon."
Although investigators didn't find behavior that met the legal standard for discrimination, they described a clubby male-dominated atmosphere.
"What we heard were allegations that male employees are 'groomed' for advancement while females seems to have less support from management and fewer promotional opportunities; certain male employees 'have an in' with Director Harder by talking sports and going on jogs with him; that men are perceived as having more latitude in the workplace than female employees," the report says.
The investigators were unable to substantiate claims that Business Oregon management misspent agency funds.
"Many allegations have been raised that management has misused or mismanaged the agency budget and program funds," Johnson and Choi wrote. "We investigated these allegations from the perspective of determining whether agency funds were misused in a biased manner, specifically in relation to the alleged 'bro culture' and favoritism toward younger males. Based on our interviews and review of documentation, we did not find evidence to support this conclusion."
The report included eight recommendations for how Harder could improve his agency's morale and effectiveness.
"Director Harder, the executive team, and other members of management should receive management and communication training to promote an inclusive and professional workplace," the report said. "Harder and upper management must take on a greater leadership role with respect to improving low employee morale and providing direction for the agency."
In statement, Harder welcomed the report.
"As director of Business Oregon I take the findings and conclusions of the report very seriously," Harder said. "I, along with the executive team, will carefully review the report findings. We are committed to implementing the report's recommendations and moving forward in a collaborative, respectful, and transparent way."
Nikki Fisher, a spokeswoman for Brown, said the governor wants the report's recommendations to go into effect immediately.
"Gov. Brown takes the concerns of state employees and any allegations of unacceptable behavior in the workplace very seriously. That's why both the Governor's Office and Business Oregon leadership asked for an investigation by an independent investigator," Fisher said in a statement."Governor Brown has directed Chris Harder to accept all recommendations made by the independent investigators and deliver a plan to implement them in 30 days."
Dana Sullivan, a Portland lawyer who represents some current and former Business Oregon employees, says report sheds light on an unacceptable situation.
"The findings validated my clients' experience that there is a pervasive, corrosive work environment and that the concerns about inequity extend beyond the handful of women who had me send the letter to Gov. Brown," Sullivan says. "The 'in group' culture that the investigators identified is the type of situation that fosters bias and inequity even if it falls short of the legal threshold for a hostile work environment which is a high, and often artificial, bar that excludes more subtle discrimination that is discrimination nonetheless."