Report on Civic Life Released Today Documents Culture of Fear and Abusive Management

“Most interviewees and survey participants felt the bureau cannot move forward with Suk [Rhee] as director citing her lack of concern for employee experience, bullying behavior, and hierarchical and condescending style of leadership.”

Sunnyside Cycling in the Sunnyside neighborhood. (Sam Gehrke) (Sam Gehrke)

Compelled by Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt, Portland officials on Tuesday released a report on the culture within the Office of Community and Civic Life. The report, commissioned after the city ombudsman outlined problems at the bureau in a 2019 memo, is damning.

“Many employees feel unheard and disrespected, and without recourse to open conversation or other methods to improve or correct challenging work and personal situations, resort to official complaints and turnover,” the report by ASCETA, a consulting firm, read. “Fear of retaliation, and the regular experience of pain and harm, prevents many employees from speaking openly or sharing.”

WW and other media outlets successfully appealed the city’s refusal to show the report to the public. The district attorney’s office ordered the report released on May 11.

On May 13, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who oversees the bureau, sent an email to bureau staff announcing Suk Rhee’s departure as director of the bureau, just two days after the Schmidt mandated that the report be made public.

Though Hardesty didn’t tell bureau employees why Rhee was departing, earlier this year employees told Hardesty allegations of severe mismanagement and emotional abuse by Rhee, as first reported by Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Hours prior to the release of the report today, Hardesty expressed her displeasure with the DA’s order that the report be released to several media outlets, including WW.

“This assessment is not an audit or performance evaluation of any individual and was intended to provide attorney client privileged information on personnel matters,” Hardesty wrote in a statement. “Although I value the need for transparency in public spending and operations, and always intended to make available a public summary report, I am disappointed in the District Attorney’s ruling as this makes publicly available what were intended to be confidential recommendations.”

Hardesty did not immediately respond to a request for comment about whether the DA’s order to release the report was connected to Rhee’s departure.

The bureau has long been riddled by mismanagement, high employee turnover and allegations of a workplace dominated by fear.

In the report’s personnel findings, the firm found that “Most interviewees and survey participants felt the bureau cannot move forward with Suk [Rhee] as director citing her lack of concern for employee experience, bullying behavior, and hierarchical and condescending style of leadership.”

Rhee was hired by former City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly in an effort to reform the bureau, once known as the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, and to broaden its civic outreach beyond its predominantly white base of neighborhood associations.

Rhee soon clashed with many employees in the office.

In quotes shared about Rhee’s leadership, employees, both former and present, divulged jarring experiences with Rhee. A repeated theme of the comments given to consultants was that people of color working in the bureau felt demeaned and ignored by new leadership—even though Rhee was a person of color tasked with diversifying the office.

One former BIPOC employee wrote: “As a former employee who is a woman of color, I felt dismissed, humiliated and intimidated by the program manager and Director. My emotional well-being was impacted by the hostile and unsupportive work environment. It resulted in my not wanting to go to work and not being motivated to do my best.”

Another BIPOC employee wrote: “I made a complaint, an official complaint that I felt very unsafe..... (In the meeting) Suk looked at me and she laughed and she said, ‘Did you really expect us to take that seriously?’ And again, I was shocked and yes, I did. It’s an official complaint.”

The personnel report on Rhee consisted of a laundry list of concerning behaviors paired with quotes from staff. The behaviors listed included: “Nepotism in hiring, controls narrative, withholds critical information from staff, treats bureau like her own private company, and sexism.”

Deep grievances and complaints regarding four other people in leadership positions in the bureau were detailed. Those grievances included reports of emotional abuse, retaliation, discrimination, and attempts to silence employees, and negative language and behavior.

The report read that “Large differences in perspective exist between a highly satisfied and supported ‘in’ group and a larger number of those who feel excluded, silenced, fearful and isolated.”

As part of the report, surveys and questionnaires were given to employees to fill out regarding a range of topics, including management and leadership, workplace culture and questions about specific leaders within the bureau. While a minority of the anonymous quotes praised leadership, the majority described OCCL as a miserable place to work.

“Civic Life management is toxic. This Bureau will not heal, unless that toxicity from the so called ‘leadership team’ is eliminated…. You can’t clean a floor with a dirty mop.”

Another quote regarding work culture read, “The toxicity got so bad for me. I almost had a breakdown,” while another person responded, “I felt dismissed, humiliated and intimidated. My emotional well-being was impacted by the hostile and unsupportive work environment.”

A particularly potent quote read, “There were people saying, ‘I’m sick. I’m getting sick. I can’t sleep at night. I am a nervous wreck. I have anxiety. I can’t eat. I just need to get out.’”

The report also mirrored what many say about the bureau already: It’s unclear what its mission and purpose is.

“Many participants attributed some of the challenges of the bureau to the great ambiguity regarding what the bureau is or what it accomplishes. This leaves it vulnerable to wide swings in work priorities depending on who is in charge and what their priorities are,” the report says.

While the report did not recommend firing those cited for leadership failures, it provided an array of recommendations and steps the bureau could take to move forward and form a new culture. (Oddly, one of those possibilities it mentioned was, indeed, to fire those in management positions.)

It recommended that the bureau acknowledge the harm it had caused, make personnel decisions, shift the system to a more equitable model with less hierarchy, and then implement the plan.

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