Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Time for "Tough Love" at the Library

I am a life long lover of libraries - that is why I am knee deep in a staff/management conflict at the one I used to work for. Top management has adopted a toxic management style that has resulted in multiple resignations, retirements, and unhappy separations. Many of those who are left standing are afraid to speak up because they wonder who will be next.

Libraries are more than buildings, books, and technology. Without the people, there is no library. I spent three years working closely with the exceptional staff and I know these are folks who care deeply about the services they provide to the community. Not everyone is equally skilled or motivated and many have personality quirks (who doesn't). The key to working with such a group is not clearing out the old and bringing in the new. The key is having the patience and the humility to get to know the staff and then build on their strengths.

The true test of leadership is not the initial honeymoon stage when everything seems to look bright and everyone is hopeful. The true test is when there are challenges that can bring out the dark side in an individual or organization. In this adverse economic climate, an organization can either pull together or pull itself apart. These difficult times require creative and compassionate leadership.

Some of us on the outside who care about the library and the people who work there alerted the board of trustees about low staff morale several weeks ago. A few tiny signs of progress have appeared since then, but there is still no safe way for the staff to speak up and air their valid concerns.

It is time for "tough love" at this library.

Comment Guidelines: I am a firm believer in freedom of information so I welcome your comments, but because there is no desire to damage the reputation of either the library or the people who work there, please to not refer to the library or individuals by name. Perhaps this could be a forum that will help foster understanding, create positive change, and result in reconciliation.


  1. I am fortunate to have worked with a number of exceptional leaders – Colleen, Scott, Linda, Tom, Don – each of them inspired me; acted as mentors; helped me grow, stretch beyond my limits, take risks, and do more than I thought I could. They listened, asked questions and encouraged dialogue and debate. There are qualities they all shared – honesty, compassion, courage, integrity –their leadership and power came from who they were as individuals, not from their position or their job title.
    Sadly, these are the qualities that are absent from the leadership in the organization you speak of. In their place is a toxic combination of arrogance and insecurity. The idea of leadership here is not inspiration, but control; not compassion, but fear. There is no guiding vision or sense of shared values and purpose here, just ego and a fractured sense of entitlement. Equally sad is that no one who is responsible for guiding the organization, for placing limits on this abuse of power, is willing to speak up. This vacuum of leadership has closed the doors to legitimate and constructive dialogue and change.
    The leadership has gotten what they seek – silence and compliance. In an organization whose core value is intellectual freedom, these are indeed sad substitutes for engagement, creativity and service. The good work that goes on happens in spite of this administration, not because of it.

  2. The other dysfunctional element in this organization - a key one - is secrecy. "Confidentiality" becomes a convenient cloak for actions that one does not want to publicly acknowledge or stand behind.
    Those who are dispatched to do the dirty work, as well as those who know, but remain silent, enable these practices. These are intelligent, professional people who have chosen to look the other way and are complicit in their silence.

  3. Working at KRL can be a very painful experience for many, but for staff not protected by a union, it can be brutal. Putting folks on administrative leave, reorganizing their job away, refusing to deal with minor disabilities, or just plain not liking somebody can result in a command to be out of the building in as little as 30 minutes and to not speak to any other KRL employees.

    In addition to the stress placed on the employee, the personnel practices of this administration have cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars in salary monies; those placed on leave while "investigations" slowly take place are still collecting salaries and benefits, sometimes for many months. In most cases, they do not know why they are being "investigated," and are not allowed to confront their accusers, if any.

    Staff not members of a union have no recourse. The Kitsap Library Board of Trustees is not available to them, perhaps by design, except through the office of the director, which can only add to the staff member's troubles. The Board is aware of this defect in the library system, but has done nothing to correct it.

    The Board is a group of well-meaning volunteers, but apparently sees its job as rubber stamping all of the director's actions. An excellent example of this automatic approval process is the Board's recent adoption of a new KRL Staff Manual. The prior manual stated in its preface that two public meetings were required to replace this manual. None were held, and the manual abolished the employee protection afforded by a grievance procedure, longevity bonuses and inclement weather pay.

    I am a former KRL employee (9 years), having left the library six weeks ago. I am of retirement age, and so decided to resign before I had planned in protest over the treatment of a fellow colleague and others who had been pushed out of KRL. Having been employed so recently, I can testify to the fact that the conditions described by this blog do indeed exist and, at this point, seem to be of no interest to the Kitsap Regional Library Board of Trustees.

    The next avenue of appeal would be the Kitsap County Commission. I hope they will have more compassion and leadership than their appointees.

  4. I have received numerous email messages of support, but even though there is an option to be anonymous, these people are afraid to comment here. I will do a follow up post tomorrow that will capture the flavor of the the comments I have received without revealing anything that would identify the individual.

    By the way, anyone including management is welcome to respond. I am hoping for an open dialogue from all sides of the issue.

  5. Thank you, Dottie Mae, for inviting the administration and the board to comment. Official messages from the administration have been changeable.

    Following behind-the-scenes protests regarding the new staff manual, the administration now gives great service to the ideas of staff input to the manual and of respect for the union contract. Why, then, was there no general staff involvement in the major rewriting of the staff manual, which establishes KRL has an at-will employer--something the previous staff manual explicitly stated that the library would never be? Why was the union not consulted or even notified of the changes to the staff manual until after the fact?

    Regarding the establishment of an after-the-fact Staff Manual Review Committee, the Director made a comment at a supervisors meeting that when you rush things, sometimes you mess them up--implying that they were in such a rush to update the staff manual that they kind of forgot to do the right thing by staff and the union. Not to be inflammatory, but the logical conclusion to draw from this statement is that the administration would rather appear incompetent and unprofessional than potentially criminal (or at least unethical).

    The administration also now stresses the motivation of legal compliance in updating the staff manual, citing a changing regulatory environment. While this is a good point, it also seems obvious that what the administration most needed was to ratify their practices toward staff, which had been out of compliance with the previous staff manual for some time (and therefore technically illegal, given the status of a staff manual as a legal document).

    I believe that the library administration and the Library Board are truly dedicated to what they believe to be the interests and the strength of the library district as an organization. They want to wage a successful library levy campaign, in order to improve library services and library buildings for the people of Kitsap County. They want to offer the voters of Kitsap County a truly inspiring levy package that provides outstanding value for every area of the county. Unfortunately, they also seem to believe that they need to emulate Dick Cheney's philosophy of government in order to achieve this goal. This philosophy accepts input only from those within the inner circle, and accepts only those messages which forward a particular agenda; it has no ethical compunction against modulating information in order to shape opinions in desired directions, regardless of actual fact or ethical considerations; and it violently resents any hint of opposition, challenge or simple disagreement.

    I heartily wish that this were not the case in the library, which is supposed to be a beacon of democracy and intellectual freedom. Employees of this library district have no such freedom. It is grievous.

    I would be delighted to be proven wrong about this! Please, please, prove me wrong.

  6. I am posting anonymously only because I am a current employee and therefore in constant fear of retaliation and job loss by the library director for having an opinion that challenges or upset her in any way. I want to confirm, on behalf of many current staff members, that an atmosphere of fear prevails, to such an extent we are even afraid to talk to each other, not knowing whom we can trust.

    We current staff just want to do an excellent job for the people of Kitsap county. We love the library and the communities we serve. We do not understand why our managers and the Board of Trustees stand by and let this library director use inhumane and unethical practices to keep staff quiet, to appoint staff of her choosing, rather than use fair practices, and to reward her inner circle with special benefits not provided to other staff.

    We do not understand how our managers and the Board of Trustees can stand by while we staff are told there is a new Staff Manual that contains only a few minor changes, when we read that manual and discover there are many more changes being slipped in under cover of secrecy, major changes such as the removal of any right to mediation, grievance procedures, and the change from 6 months probation for new staff to 12 months.

    We know change is inevitable and appropriate in managing an organization. It is lying about that change that we do not understand. It is hiding those changes from your own staff that we do not understand. It is the disappearance of an organization that we loved and supported, where collaboration and creativity were fostered, that we mourn. We are watching our beloved library change into a place where fear and mistrust prevail.

    This definitely affects productivity and has a negative impact on the proper use of taxpayer money. Perhaps our managers are also afraid, and that is why they do not speak up anymore in meetings. It has been demonstrated to them that if you ask the wrong question, you may be jeopardizing your career. But why is our Board of Trustees unwilling to investigate....are they, too, afraid?

  7. I have received an anonymous comment from someone who is obviously angry about the situation at the library. I have decided to publish the comment even though it feels like it may be close to crossing the line between constructive criticism and an attack. The comment will follow this message.

    I would like to add the following information:

    While people may be disappointed that the library board has not responded publicly to the concerns brought to them, board members are volunteers who are seeking to contribute to their community. Presumably they are trying to do what they think is best for the organization.

    Readers should note that the library website has a link to an annual report and audits are done every other year by the county.

  8. Given the laggardly performance of the Library Board of (alleged) Trustees, even to the point of failing to comply with its own by-laws, it is clear that the Administration of the library can and does do as it pleases. It is a unit of government free from any sort of electoral control. Has anyone out there seen an Annual Report from the library Aministration? Has anyone seen a budget of its expenditures of our tax moneys? It is clear that the Board of Trustees is way over its head in matters of government controls, and that they are, as a factual matter, amateurs. E.g., the Board does not, because it cannot, perform audits of the Library's finances. In this writer's view, this is a dangerous way to run an institution. Why should the public put its trust in the people who run that show to administer responsibily such a very large increase in its revenue? To start, let's publish the credentials of all of the officers and management.

  9. My wife has worked for many years at this library. For 15 years I never heard her say a bad word about about the system or any of the employees. The last three years or so I get an earful of the problems about the system. Especially the hiring practices, targeted promotions for favorites, mysterious worker disappearences and micromanagement. It seems as though individualism is an archaic practice and management wants to implement and micromanage down to the smallest detail. The present management style is "My way or the highway". Many dedicated workers are unhappy and this is not a productive path to follow if the library wants to get a levy passed. The system is broken and I would suggest replacing the person in charge. To be a little more direct I would be inclined to also replace the board if they continue to march in lockstep with the present director's practices. This is not a prudent path to continue down if the county wants a viable library system in the future. I will not vote for the levy and will encourage all my friends to do likewise until this fiasco is resolved.

  10. I am also a current employee, and I have given up on applying for jobs that could further my career within the library because of favoritism. I always get "beaten" out of jobs that in which I am qualified, yet the favoritism has gotten so bad that applying for new jobs just seems like a waste of time, especially when I hear rumors that the job has practically been offered to someone before the applications are even due.

  11. One problem I've seen is the lack of support from outlying branches. Someone said, "Thank God I don't work at SW". I also wanted to let people know, if they don't already, that the union saved the staff manual. The Director didn't back down because staff complained. The union forced the issue. As for those who think everyone is happy, they are either so far removed from the problem that they don't see what's going on, or they just don't care.