Executive Summary of Investigation Report from Sindy Warren, Warren & Associates LLC
Aug 27, 2020
To: Mark Krohn, Board Chair of United Way Summit Medina
From: Sindy Warren, Warren & Associates LLC
Date: August 22, 2020
Re: Executive Summary of Investigation Report
On or around July 23, 2020 United Way of Summit & Medina (“United Way”) CEO Jim Mullen was informed of an email that was sent to a former employee’s United Way address. Attached to the email was a draft letter to the United Way Board that made a number of allegations against Mr. Mullen and others at United Way. The draft letter alleged a “toxic, harmful, and hostile work environment;” “racism and white supremacy culture;” “nepotism;” and a host of other claims. The draft letter was amended by a letter that was sent to the Board on July 31, 2020 (hereinafter the “Letter”).
Warren & Associates was retained by Board President Mark Krohn on July 24, 2020. During the course of the investigation I interviewed thirty witnesses, twelve of whom were former employees. In speaking to former employees who were involved with the Letter, I urged them to share my contact information with any additional individuals who had relevant information and were willing to speak with me as part of this investigation. I guaranteed anonymity to any and all such individuals. In addition, I reviewed many documents, including letters of support for Mr. Mullen, email correspondence from current employees regarding the investigation, and documents provided by both Mr. Mullen and Human Resources. It is worth noting that in my nearly seventeen years of conducting workplace investigations, this is largest and most comprehensive investigation I have conducted. The investigation was concluded on August 19, 2020.
II. Statement of Allegations
The Letter was signed by “a group of concerned former staff” and began by stating that “it is our understanding that an investigator has been hired to protect the President/CEO and the organization.”* It went on to allege a “toxic, harmful, and hostile work environment.” The Letter pointed to a high turnover rate. It next stated that employees were placed on performance plans with the goal of exiting them (“it was well known that if you were placed on a performance plan, you were being pushed out”).
Additional allegations concerning the toxic culture are as follows:
- “It was common practice for senior leadership to mock employees in front of other employees”;
- The organization is characterized by fear;
- The CEO regularly berates and yells at senior staff members in meetings;
- The CEO was moody and often slammed doors and yelled;
- Money was put into whatever campaign year would make the organization look better. Even though there were protocols in place on where to direct donor money, it would be placed in the year that would make UWSMC look the best.
The Letter also complained about HR, stating that if concerns were raised to HR, there was retaliation and HR shared complaints with the CEO.
In addition, the Letter alleged the following incident, which it described as the CEO taking advantage of being in power. At a conference, the CEO asked an employee if she wanted to play the “key card game,” where participants mix up their key cards and then show up in each other’s rooms at night. He allegedly stated that he and the employee could “rig it” and just switch cards. Thereafter, the CEO allegedly texted the employee to make sure she had made it to her room safely.
The next category of allegations in the Letter is entitled “Racism and White Supremacy Culture.” It continued: “How can UWSMC live its mission when the senior leadership doesn’t fully believe in people’s inherent humanity. We believe that harm is actually being perpetuated on our communities because of the complete and total lack of understanding and accountability.” It provided examples, including the following:
- In 2016 a member of leadership straddled a fallen tree and stated “move you Nepali whore, move you bitch,” while the CEO observed this and laughed;
- In August 2017 after the Charlottesville rally and protests, a staff member asked HR to create a space for employees to talk about what happened; HR went to the CEO who then retaliated against the employee;
- An employee was a vocal Trump supporter who made denigrating comments about United Way clients;
- A member of leadership made a comment to the effect of “don’t put your hood up you might get shot”;
- A member of leadership suggested a fundraising effort be called “terrorist week” and suggested the team name could be “towel heads”;
- An employee asked a black employee if he was “in the bloods”;
- Sexual jokes were frequently made to LGBTQ staff;
- A member of leadership spoke in an “Indian” accent to an employee eating a curry dish;
- People of color were relegated to working in the basement in the old building;
- Female staff with children were punished or looked down upon for having childcare responsibilities;
- Older employees were treated poorly;
- A member of leadership belittled people living in poverty.
The next category of allegations is “Nepotism.” The Letter stated that nepotism is widespread and contributes to the “toxic” culture. It stated that new hiring processes were created but were not followed and “certainly did not adhere to best practices related to DEI.” It alleged that all open positions were supposed to be posted internally and externally, but that this did not happen for the Director of New Business, the VP of Community Impact, and the VP of Corporate and Community Engagement.
The Letter further alleged that many positions have been filled by “personal friends of the CEO, board member’s significant others, or previous board members.” The Letter stated “we are not disputing the fact that some of these individuals may be qualified for their positions, but there is clearly a conflict of interest and an investment in not following hiring procedures or promoting Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.”
The final category complained of in the Letter is “miscellaneous.” The complaint is that “UWSMC has a track record of putting donors’ needs first, regardless of community need.” It cited the selection of Bold Goal 4 and alleged it was chosen because a “small group of influential Akronites and board members were personally affected by the issue.”
The Letter requested the following actions: (1) leadership roles should be evaluated and vacant positions should be filled by people of color; (2) the Board should allocate a seat to a employee; (3) the Board should consider allocating “at least 1/3 of its seats to economically and racially diverse individuals from local communities”; (4) the Board and leadership should invest in racial justice training; (5) United Way “shall cede their leadership role of Diversity Equity and Inclusion work throughout the community to focus internally on repairing the damage to better serve clients and staff before trying to serve the community at large.”
* This is, of course, untrue, as my retention is simply to ascertain the facts, not to protect anyone.
III. Factual Findings and Conclusions
Based on my review of all of the evidence, I conclude that the majority of the allegations are unsubstantiated. I further conclude that some of the incidents alleged happened as described, as detailed more fully below. Notwithstanding this, I conclude that the characterizations of the workplace culture do not accurately represent the culture and climate at United Way.
It is worth noting that many of the former employees with whom I spoke, most of whom claim to have had nothing to do with the Letter, agree at least in part with its characterizations relative to the workplace culture that existed during their tenures. Just as the totality of current employees’ experiences cannot be negated, neither can the totality of former employees’ experiences. My findings take this into account.
Toxic, Harmful and Hostile Work Environment
The Letter pointed to a high turnover rate, and indeed there has been one during Mr. Mullen’s tenure. However, and as many attested to, that is the nature of new leadership, fast growth, and true change. This is not to say that all of the turnover has been beneficial, and that some could have or should have been mitigated, but this does not, in my view, necessarily equate with a toxic workplace culture. Nonetheless, many former employees suggested that the high rate of turnover made them afraid for their jobs, and I credit their statements in this regard.
Performance standards were implemented under Mr. Mullen that were largely absent before his time. With performance management comes accountability and
work-related pressure. This will necessarily entail some leaving voluntarily and some leaving on an involuntary basis. I conclude it is not true that being placed on a performance improvement plan necessarily meant that someone was being pushed out. I heard several contrary stories where employees enhanced their performance and remained with the organization. I also know from my extensive HR experience that such plans are utilized when there is already a performance-based concern. Thus, it is neither unusual nor unexpected for there to be terminations following performance improvement plans.
I do not substantiate the allegations that “[i]t was common practice for senior leadership to mock employees in front of other employees.” I heard outright denials of this allegation from every current employee with whom I spoke and also some former employees. I conclude that even if there was an isolated instance where Mr. Mullen or other senior leadership made fun of someone, it is not the case that this was common practice.
Similarly, I do not substantiate the allegation that the organization is characterized by fear. Again, every current employee with whom I spoke denied this, including those who had constructive feedback. Several former employees stated that this was the case during their tenure, while others did not. Thus, I conclude that some former employees were afraid at times of losing their jobs. This does not translate to an overall culture of fear, however, and I conclude that even if that existed in the past for some, it does not exist now. I also conclude that Mr. Mullen has made bold changes to the organization in the past five years. Change can create fear in employees in any organization, especially when it is coupled with high expectations and performance management. This is not unusual, in my view.
So too with the allegation that the “CEO regularly berates and yells at senior staff members in meetings.” Every current senior staff member with whom I spoke denied this. I heard this from a few former employees, and it may well be the case that Mr. Mullen raised his voice at a senior staff member from time to time during his five-year tenure. He acknowledged as such. This does not, however, equate with a toxic work environment. In a high stress and fast-paced environment in particular, people are bound to become emotionally reactive from time to time. Nonetheless, it is of course preferable for leaders to keep their composure at all times and this may well be an area of improvement for Mr. Mullen.
With respect to the allegation that “the CEO was moody and often slammed doors and yelled,” I conclude this is unsubstantiated. While many former employees stated that they viewed Mr. Mullen as moody, this is not a universally held perception among former employees and does not at all reflect the sentiments of current employees. Again, people can experience mood fluctuations in stressful work environments (and otherwise) and I am not saying Mr. Mullen was never in a bad mood. However, based on my witness interviews, I conclude that the work environment is not currently toxic or hostile, nor do those descriptors fairly characterize the prior environment in its totality.
It is noteworthy that several current employees submitted unsolicited letters of support for United Way and Mr. Mullen. In the hundreds of workplace investigations that I have conducted, I have yet to see the level of support Mr. Mullen has from current staff members. Their statements were not just supportive, but glowingly and emphatically so. This is not to take away from the allegations against him or to suggest that there are not areas of growth for him as a leader, but it is striking and impacts my conclusions on his effectiveness as a leader.
I do not substantiate the claim that money was put into whatever campaign year would make the organization look better. As Mr. Mullen explained, the auditors reviewed whether the organization placed donor money in the correct year and found no issues. No witness with whom I spoke, including former employees who were involved in the writing of the Letter, provided any support at all for the allegation to the contrary.
Lack of HR Responsiveness and Retaliation
The Letter also complained about HR, stating that if concerns were raised to HR, there was retaliation and HR shared complaints with the CEO. I find this allegation is, for the most part, unsubstantiated. As an initial matter, HR should bring concerns to the CEO – that is partly the role of a well-functioning HR department.
I heard from a couple of current employees who viewed HR’s responses to concerns they raised to be appropriate and swift, and to reflect well on the organization’s responsiveness. I repeatedly heard about Mr. Mullen’s open door, openness to feedback, and a complete lack of a sense of retaliation. On the other hand, I heard a few former employees complain about a perceived lack of responsiveness and/or retaliation. Nonetheless, my review of the witness statements and documents leads me to conclude that there was not (and is not) a culture of retaliation.
Several former employees expressed that they felt a member of leadership was allowed to remain at the United Way for too long. A current employee expressed this as well. According to witnesses with whom I spoke and documents I reviewed, this individual was subjected to discipline and a performance improvement plan in 2017. Leadership addressed concerns when they arose and implemented training and mentoring. Further, complaints about management style do not equate to complaints of discrimination or other violations of organizational policies. A case could certainly be made that this individual should have been released before he was. However, it is simply not the case that leadership did nothing in the face of concerns being raised. Accordingly, while I understand why some feel there was a lack of responsiveness, I cannot substantiate the allegation that there was a lack of HR-based responsiveness overall.
It is noteworthy that two current employees expressed a fear of retaliation, but by the group of former employees involved in the Letter, not by Mr. Mullen or anyone at United Way. The first witness with whom I spoke was very supportive of Mr. Mullen and the organization, though she acknowledged that areas for improvement exist. She convincingly stated that she brought concerns to Mr. Mullen’s attention and never feared or experienced retaliation. However, she was concerned about former employees retaliating in some way if they knew she expressed support of Mr. Mullen.
So too with the current employee who wrote a letter regarding the investigation. He requested anonymity because he feared retaliation in the community by the
former employees. These statements by two current employees solidify my finding that retaliation by Mr. Mullen or HR is not an internal issue at United Way.
The documents I reviewed also demonstrate that HR did respond to concerns as they arose. HR’s response may not have been what the employees involved hoped for, as is often the case in HR matters, but that does not equate to a lack of responsiveness, nor does it show that HR’s response was inadequate.
Allegations of Sexual Harassment and Discrimination
The allegation with respect to the key card issue raises the specter of harassment by Mr. Mullen. He adamantly denied ever asking for her key card or suggesting anything of a sexual or intimate nature. The witness in question acknowledged that this is a classic “he said/she said,” in that there were no witnesses to the alleged conversation.
I cannot make a finding as to whether or not Mr. Mullen suggested to a former employee that they swap key cards. However, I am able to conclude that there is nothing close to a harassment issue at United Way. I am further persuaded by the fact that this individual continued to work closely with Mr. Mullen after the alleged key card incident. Further, she continued to seek mentoring from him after she left United Way. This is not dispositive of course, as victims of harassment are sometimes left no choice but to continue to work with their harassers. Nonetheless, it did weigh into my credibility assessment and contributed to my conclusion that even if she may have considered the alleged exchange inappropriate, she did not consider it harassing.
Furthermore, the Letter claims that Mr. Mullen texted this individual after she retired to her hotel room for the night, asking if she made it to her room and stating he would see her in the morning. The Letter suggests that this corroborates the allegations of sexual innuendo. I conclude that is unsubstantiated. Another witness with whom I spoke during the course of the investigation explained that Mr. Mullen frequently texted other conference-goers to make sure they were safely in their rooms and to indicate that he would see them in the morning. This witness explained there was nothing either suggestive or otherwise inappropriate in these communications. I credit these statements in concluding that the alleged text messages do not support any kind of harassment claim against Mr. Mullen. It is also worth noting the complete dearth of any other allegations of sexual harassment of any kind, both in witness interviews and in the many documents that I reviewed.
I similarly conclude that allegations of sex-based discrimination are unsubstantiated. The Letter claims that female staff with children were punished or looked down upon for having childcare responsibilities. I heard repeatedly about strong women leaders and also about Mr. Mullen offering steadfast support for working mothers balancing work and family responsibilities. I heard from both women and men in leadership that this is a strong cultural value within the organization, and I conclude that this is, in fact, the case.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, I heard from a few witnesses about insensitive comments a member of leadership made about pregnancy and/or maternity leave. This does not necessarily equate to discrimination, though it is troubling. However, the interviews and my review of the documents indicate that most of these comments were not reported at the time. When a comment was brought to HR’s attention, it was addressed via counseling and documentation. Further, to the extent that a member of leadership discussed whether an employee on maternity leave was coming back to work – something I heard from former witnesses – this does not, in my opinion, evince a discriminatory intent. Nonetheless, all leaders should be respectful of and sensitive to issues of pregnancy and maternity leaves.
Racism and White Supremacy Culture
The Letter provided a number of examples to support its claim that United Way is plagued by racism and a white supremacy culture. While I found corroborating evidence of some of these specific examples, I conclude that United Way is neither a racist nor a white supremacist culture, nor was it ever under Mr. Mullen’s leadership. To the contrary, I conclude that United Way is a thought leader on issues relevant to DEI and has made a tremendously positive impact on the community. This is not to say that there is not more work to be done, however, but racism does not define or infiltrate the organizational culture. I heard from many current employees that it is precisely because of the organization’s commitment to equality and equity that they are so loyal to United Way.
Most of the specific allegations surrounding race involve a former employee who resigned in June 2020. Most of the former employees with whom I spoke, and a current employee as well, pointed to this individual as the primary culture problem within United Way. The group of former employees blame this individual’s tenure on Mr. Mullen, while the current employee opined that Mr. Mullen was unaware of problematic behavior. As explained above, it is certainly the case that Mr. Mullen and HR could have acted more forcefully and swiftly with respect to this individual. However, when allegations came to light about race-based comments and the like, they gave him the opportunity to resign from the organization.
Based on the sheer volume of allegations pertaining to this person, I conclude that he made at least some inappropriate comments and made some former employees feel uncomfortable during their time at United Way. While this was problematic from a culture perspective, it does not translate to a racist and white supremacist culture, as explained below.
A former employee stated she witnessed the 2016 comment to the effect of “move you Nepali whore, move you bitch.” She further stated Mr. Mullen heard this and laughed. Mr. Mullen absolutely denied hearing, or hearing about, this alleged comment. I credit his statements in this regard and am persuaded by the evidence that when he personally learned of insensitive remarks from an employee, he was swift to act, as was HR.
I heard from current and former employees about this individual joking about making the theme for the internal campaign “terrorist week” (though I do not corroborate that he used the term “towel heads,” as two individuals who heard the comment did not hear that). This was certainly insensitive and in poor taste. However, I do not find that this equates to a racist or white supremacist culture. I further heard about an alleged comment regarding a hoodie. I conclude this comment falls in the same category of insensitive and in poor taste. I further conclude that these kinds of things were addressed by United Way.
I conclude the allegation that jokes were frequently made about LGBTQ staff members is unsubstantiated. I heard about a single comment about a lesbian employee allegedly contributing to “diversity.” Assuming this comment was made, it falls under the category of insensitive but not discriminatory, in my opinion.
The next category of allegations is “Nepotism.” The Letter states that nepotism is widespread and contributes to the “toxic” culture. It states that new hiring processes were created but were not followed and “certainly did not adhere to best practices related to DEI.” United Way policy defines nepotism as two family members working in a supervisory relationship. There is not an instance where that happened. However, the larger point of this concern is that there was a perception that friends/family members of Mr. Mullen and Board members received preferential treatment in hiring. I conclude that this perception was, in fact, held by many former employees. A couple of current employees with whom I spoke shared this perception to varying degrees as well. However, to the extent that the Letter suggests that unqualified people were brought into the organization solely based on preexisting relationships, I conclude this is untrue.
As one witness stated, in hiring decisions in non-profit organizations (and beyond) everywhere, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” There may be some truth to this. However, the suggestion that United Way is not a meritocracy is unsubstantiated. The members of the SLT who were brought into the organization based on Mr. Mullen’s preexisting knowledge of them and their capabilities are extremely well-qualified and have added a lot to the organization in their short tenures. In addition, some are people of color, which is at odds with the suggestion that hiring at United Way does not advance DEI. Still, it may well be the case that Mr. Mullen would have earned more internal trust had he posted all positions, as outlined in United Way’s hiring procedures.
I heard from many current employees that promotions occurred based solely on merit and hard work. The fact that former employees have a different view is unsurprising, as some of them left because they were not advancing. Thus, I conclude that the internal culture is one where merit, hard work, and tangible results are rewarded.
A couple of instances were raised regarding Board member’s relationships. I heard from a couple of witnesses that during the hiring process of one current employee, assurances were made that if she was hired, her husband would step off the Board. That apparently did not happen. It does not need to happen in my view, so long as he does not influence her employment status. However, when assurances are made and then not followed up on, it can have a negative impact on morale.
Miscellaneous and Requests for Resolution
The Letter alleges that United Way puts donors’ needs first, before community needs. I conclude that United Way has made a tremendous amount of positive impact for the community and is poised to continue to do so. It is in that vein that I address the requests for resolution set forth in the Letter. With respect to the suggestion that “leadership roles should be evaluated and vacant positions should be filled by BIPOC candidates who have a strong racial justice analysis,” I conclude that United Way already engages in hiring practices that encourage diverse applicants. Mr. Mullen has hired two such applicants to leadership positions in the past year.
I disagree with the suggestion that the Board allocate a seat to an employee. Employees and Board members have unique roles and responsibilities. However, it is a good idea to have a Board outlet for employees, should they feel the need to elevate issues beyond Mr. Mullen.
With respect to the suggestion that the Board allocate 1/3 of its seats to economically and racially diverse individuals, I think the Board should follow its own governance rules. Former employees should not dictate such issues. However, to the extent the Board finds this useful or helpful, it is of course free to consider bringing on such individuals. My understanding, though, is that the Board is already comprised of diverse individuals from the community.
With respect to the suggestion for racial justice training, I am always in favor of more rather than less training. I suggest that an internal discussion be had about what kinds of trainings would be helpful, either to staff, Board members, or both. It is not necessary, of course, that the trainer be external.
The final suggestion is that United Way “shall cede their leadership role of Diversity Equity and Inclusion work throughout the community.” This is, in my opinion, completely unreasonable and indeed quite unhelpful to the community that the Letter writers purport to be so concerned about. United Way has done and should continue to do great work in the community in this regard, under Mr. Mullen’s leadership. While Mr. Mullen is the first to admit that there is room for growth and learning, I firmly believe that the organization can continue to do its important community-based work while at the same time being engaged in its own growth.
Final Thoughts and Recommendations
As I have already expressed, after thirty witness interviews and the review of many documents, I am left with a clear impression of the passion and dedication that Mr. Mullen has brought and continues to bring to United Way. No leader is perfect, and Mr. Mullen has room to grow, as do others within the organization. However, the evidence refutes the overall characterization of the United Way culture as toxic, racist, and otherwise harmful to staff and the community.
In addition to what I have already shared, I recommend the following:
- Assessment of training needs for leadership and staff;
- A mechanism by which staff members can access designated Board members if necessary;
- A review of hiring practices to minimize perceptions of unfairness;
- Additional HR support to receive and respond to staff issues and concerns;
- A more streamlined exit interview process whereby HR can share pertinent reflections from departing staff members with the SLT and/or Mr. Mullen, and
- An assessment of whether some kind of executive coaching would benefit Mr. Mullen as he grows as a leader. Mr. Mullen should be part of this assessment and should consider potential areas of growth, such as stress management, communication, and the like.