Group of former, current United Way employees disheartened by report


By Betty Lin-Fisher - Akron Beacon Journal (TNS)



The group of former and current United Way employees who brought allegations of a toxic and hostile work environment feels defeated after an investigator’s report said their claims were mostly unsubstantiated. But they feel they raised their concerns and they will not be pursuing further public action.

“We’re tired,” said one former employee who was speaking on behalf of the group. “Our reputations and credibility are on the line and at the end of the day, this is another struggle that this country is seeing so much of. There are no consequences for your action if you are in power.

“It’s clear it’s not an objective report,” said the former employee who did not write the letter to the board, but is involved with the group that wrote the letter. The employee and others are not being identified for fear of retribution and threats that they have received.

“We can’t keep talking if we’re not going to be valued and our experience are going to be diminished. It’s pretty disheartening when someone says they were sexually harassed and they are told it was he said/she said.”

The group still believes United Way’s “leadership team, including the board, needs evaluated. There’s no consequences for treating people like that. These are the people who are supposed to be protecting our most vulnerable in the community and they’re not protecting those who work for them,” said the person, who is speaking on behalf of the group of 22 former and current employees, including 10 who spoke to the investigator. Originally, the group started with 15 former employees, but grew to 22 people including current employees since the stories have appeared in the newspaper.

The group is not calling for the resignation of board members or CEO Jim Mullen, whom several members of the board of directors on Thursday said they stood behind.

“We saw what happened with the [Akron Art Museum],” the person said, referring to a group of former employees of the museum that alleged sexism, racism and bullying to their board of their CEO, who has since resigned. The former museum employees said they were retaliated against, a charge the board denies.

While group members are disheartened by the investigation, which concluded that the majority of their allegations are unsubstantiated, they are not surprised by the result.

“This is exactly what we knew it would be,” said another former employee who was involved in the letter-writing. “Just a way to cover everything up and dismiss horrible behavior that I guarantee has not changed.”

The group wanted to see change in the organization, but want to be clear “we believe in the mission of the United Way and helping the community and we want to support the staff that make that happen, but ensure they are also supported in doing that work.”

The final report makes it sound like there is an “us vs. them” between former and current employees, said the spokesperson.

“That’s not the case,” the person said, adding the group is trying to protect the current employees.

All of the former and current employees are anonymous. Many work with foundations and nonprofits that support or receive support from the local United Way.

The spokesperson for the group initially declined to participate in the investigation, questioning its independence. But the person participated.

“I felt bullied into it as the only option to substantiate the claims,” the person said. “I felt it was important to the group so they [the United Way or the investigator] could not debunk everyone else’s claims.”

While the report concludes many claims are “unsubstantiated,” the person said “everything in that letter happened to somebody directly. It was their personal experience. It isn’t something to be substantiated or not. It happened. It is the truth.”

The report “doesn’t seem objective. It looks like Jim [Mullen] denied all allegations and Jim’s denial and his… very green senior leadership team support him in those denials.”

Another former employee, who did not agree to be part of the letter-writing group but did speak to the investigator, said Friday: “What I believe is there are issues at United Way that the board should have been paying attention to for a long time, including intimidation, nepotism and an overall poor treatment of the people doing the work.”

The former employee agreed to talk to the investigator because the person appreciated the way board chair Mark Krohn was handling the crisis and his desires for transparency in the process.

However, on Friday, the former employee understood why some current or former co-workers did not want to participate in the investigation — and the former employee is disappointed in the final investigator’s report.

“I felt the rhetoric by the investigator justified those who did not want to participate because the language is biased and focuses on legality rather than morality.”

Referring to one of the allegations in particular: “To question the credibility of a person that was made uncomfortable by a powerful man’s sexual advances seems very antiquated.”

The former employee, however was encouraged by Krohn’s mass email message to donors, which outlined steps forward.

“I think overall that’s good and I hope they hold themselves accountable.”

The spokesperson for the letter-writing group said the six steps from the board “are a decent start but until the nepotism is handled, which they don’t consider nepotism, who cares.”

Mullen reaction

Mullen, who has been CEO since May 2015, said he was grateful for the current and former employees who came forward to talk to the investigator.

“These are important steps. Acknowledging although much of it was unsubstantiated, there are certainly things we need to do to ensure we are a better organization for our staff,” Mullen said in an interview.

“I’m excited about the fact that there was a recognition of the great work that we have done in this community. We will continue to be a strong organization to meet the needs of the community,” he said. “That’s especially important in light of the times that we are in with social unrest and systemic racism issues.

Mullen said the report stands for itself in the allegations, including racist remarks.

The leadership and board have outlined steps to “to move forward to ensure our staff has a voice. As concerns like that manifest themselves, that they have a mechanism to share that in a confidential and appropriate way that does not make them vulnerable or fear,” he said.

Mullen and board president Mark Krohn said they are not aware of the identities of all 30 people who spoke to the investigator. Some were anonymous.

Board responds

In a joint Zoom interview Thursday evening, Krohn, Board Vice President Michele Cerminaro and Bishop David Parker, who chairs the board’s equity and inclusion committee, thanked those who participated in the investigation and said the board has a good plan to move forward.

“For what was substantiated, they let us know we have some things to do better. I want to thank them for that,” Krohn said.

When asked why the board took more than a week between receiving the report and releasing it to the public, Cerminaro said she believed it was “expeditiously addressed” and that the board wanted to have action steps to report.

“I feel good we’ve tied this up and have good reporting systems in place to make sure we don’t slip or fall back,” she said.

Krohn said there are more than 50 community leaders who are officers or on the executive committee or general members of the board.

“I think frankly moving a ship that big — with a weekend in between — I think it’s pretty outstanding and marvelous. This board was ready to act. This board was waiting whatever the findings were going to be and acted swiftly. I don’t think it’s been that much time — maybe four real working days,” he said.

“Part of my challenge has been keeping people calm,” Krohn said. “Everybody wanted this done yesterday.”

Said Parker: “I appreciate every person who participated in this process — whether part of writing the letter, whether it was Jim in his quick response to getting to the board or Mark in his thoroughness. All of our board members have had a laser hot focus on this over the past four weeks to make sure we had the best information, to make sure our investigator had everything at her disposal and the investigator did a thorough job in reaching out to everyone. Nobody was blocked or stopped. Everybody was invited. Whoever participated chose to.

Continued Bishop: “We don’t want anyone to feel alienated by the UW. We want the letter writers to know we want to do this for them as well as our donors, our stakeholders and everybody.”

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By Betty Lin-Fisher

Akron Beacon Journal (TNS)

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