HomeLocal governmentInvestigator found “many similar themes” in complaints about a “toxic work environment” in City’s Office of DEI under Interim Director Folston
Investigator found “many similar themes” in complaints about a “toxic work environment” in City’s Office of DEI under Interim Director Folston
February 8, 2023
BY JENNIFER CABRERA
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – At the February 2 Gainesville City Commission meeting, commissioners approved contracts for four interim charter officers but asked for more information before approving the contract for Zeriah Folston, the Interim Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
City Manager Cynthia Curry’s contract was approved with a base salary of $299,000, an increase of $37,215 over her interim salary. GRU General Manager Tony Cunningham’s contract was approved with a base salary of $308,935, the same as his interim salary. City Attorney Daniel Nee’s contract was approved with a base salary of $228,000, an increase of$20,540.
The salary that Mayor Harvey Ward negotiated with Folston was $218,000, an increase of over $66,000 from his previous salary of $151,246. Folston, who had previously been the Policy Oversight Administrator for the City, was selected as Interim Director of the Office on August 19, 2021, and the commission voted to make the position permanent on January 19, 2023. He replaced Teneeshia Marshall, who resigned in May 2021.
Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut balked at the 44% increase for Folston and requested that staff do some research on how much similar officials are paid in other cities. The City has had trouble getting that type of information in the past because the job does not seem to be similar to jobs in other cities. Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker said her motion on January 19 to make all the interim charter officers permanent was “generous,” and she supported taking some time to study the salary before making a decision.
The motion to make three charters permanent passed 5-2, with Commissioners Ed Book and Reina Saco in dissent. The motion to renegotiate Folston’s salary and come back with information about salaries for similar positions passed 4-3, with Ward, Saco, and Commissioner Casey Willits in dissent.
One thing that was not mentioned during any of the discussions about making Folston a permanent charter officer was an investigative report that was completed in June 2022 in response to a complaint that Folston had created a “toxic work environment” in his office.
At the time, the office had six employees:
Manager 1, the Equal Opportunity Manager, who was the Acting Director before Folston was selected as the Interim Director. She is responsible for the Compliance, Small Business, and Affirmative Action teams.
Manager 2, the DEI Manager, who was on parental leave when Folston started at the office.
Manager 3, the Compliance Manager.
Employee 1, an Equity Specialist, who resigned in April 2022.
Employee 2, the Equal Opportunity Coordinator.
Employee 3, the Compliance Investigator.
The events leading to the complaint
The complaint was filed in March 2022 by Employee 2, claiming that staff in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion are subjected to a “toxic work environment” by Folston and that he is actively undermining his staff, “preventing them from fulfilling the full scope of their jobs.”
The investigator noted that there is no established policy for investigating claims against a charter officer. Investigations of complaints against charter officers are normally performed by the “Equal Opportunity Department Director” (now renamed to the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) and the City Auditor, but since the complaint was against Folston, the decision was made to have the Human Resources Department conduct the investigation and provide the report to the City Auditor for submission to the city commission. The areas of complaint covered in the report are summarized below.
Toxic work environment
Employee 1 told the investigator that Folston’s presence “created for her a newfound stress associated with the work environment,” causing her to obtain a note from her doctor and request an accommodation to work remotely, which was granted. She also said Folston “did not understand the work.” She later left her job in April 2022 and said her “initial grievances were not worked out, she did not feel supported… there was no professional development in her one year with the City, she became sick and tired of it all, and she was generally exhausted.”
Manager 1 told the investigator that she “felt a toxic work environment” existed in the office “because of the actions of Mr. Folston.”
Manager 2 said that in the short time Folston had been in his role, “I have seen the morale of the office crater.”
The investigator wrote that the definition of a “hostile work environment” requires an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment that is based on a complainant’s protected status and the City’s ordinance prohibiting discrimination in employment practices “recognizes ten categories of protected characteristics, including ‘sexual orientation, race, color, gender, age, religion, national origin, marital status, disability or gender identity.'” Thus, questions about whether the environment is “hostile” requires an allegation that the behavior affected a protected class.
When Manager 1 was asked whether she thought there was a “hostile work environment” in the office, she replied that she didn’t know if it was based on gender.
When Manager 2 was asked whether he thought there was a hostile work environment, he replied that Folston’s treatment of Employee 1 and Manager 1 “was above and beyond.” Manager 2 thought Folston’s conduct and actions could constitute a violation of the City’s Code of Ethical Standards, as well as several rules in the Code of Conduct. However, the investigator did not make any findings in those areas.
When Employee 2 was asked whether he thought there was a hostile work environment, he said part of it might be based on gender, but “this is a multi-faceted complaint and does not need to be based on a protected class.”
When Employee 3 was asked whether he thought there was a hostile work environment, he said he wasn’t sure whether Folston’s actions were based on a protected class; he added that “taking everything together, this is severe treatment.” In his statement, he added that employees “increasingly felt uneasy being around Mr. Folston alone.”
Manager 3 said she could understand why staff views the workplace as a toxic environment because “the way Zeriah manages is killing morale.” She also commented that the team had no issues with leadership under Marshall, but “Things have changed in a negative way” since Folston took the job.
Manager 1 said that Employee 1 was crying in September 2021 and that she told Manager 1 that Folston was “questioning her competency and antagonizing her.” Manager 1 said she tried to talk to Folston about this, and he dismissed the discussion, saying it wasn’t a big deal. Manager 1 said this was unfair to Employee 1 and that “these matters were never resolved.”
“It’s okay to look for other jobs”
Multiple staff members reported that during their first staff meeting with Folston, he told them he was okay with staff looking for other jobs, and this made them uncomfortable. He reportedly said this again at their second staff meeting.
Manager 1 also said Folston asked her if she was planning on leaving, which she found “highly inappropriate.”
Employee 2 told the investigator that following a staff meeting, Folston asked the Compliance team to stay behind. Manager 1 asked whether Folston wanted her there, and Folston said no. After she left, Folston reportedly said, “If you need to ask, you don’t need to be here.” Employee 2 said Folston then praised the Compliance team’s work, which he interpreted as pitting that team against the Equity team.
Employee 2 also said Folston was “undermining and sabotaging” the work of revamping the department’s affirmative action plan and that he has seen two employees crying in the office. He said Folston has “eroded the mental and emotional stability in the office.” He also said he had heard from community members that Folston makes “disparaging remarks about staff.”
Employee 3 said that after he had a salary discussion with Folston, Folston told two of his colleagues how much money he had asked for, without providing the context that Folston had asked Employee 3 how much he thought he should be making.
Folston told the investigator that he told his staff that he is there to support them and that he understood how they felt about Marshall’s departure. He said he had heard that staff would “walk” when he came aboard, and he “wanted to recognize they have feelings.” He said he told the staff he “wasn’t there to run them off” and that he didn’t believe it was inappropriate to ask whether they intended to leave.
Prosci Change Management Training
After the City’s engagement with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity ended, there were discussions about whether employees should take the Prosci Change Management training. Employee 1 told the investigator that Folston asked her how long she planned to stay with the City while discussing whether he would approve Prosci training for her. In the end, her supervisor Manager 2 was approved to take the training, but she was not.
Manager 2 confirmed to the investigator that Folston had asked Employee 1 if she was planning on leaving, and he didn’t want to pay for the training if she might leave. After she said she wasn’t sure how long she would stay, Folston paid for training for Manager 2 but not Employee 1. Manager 2 expressed concern that the training was approved for a white male but not a black female. Manager 2 also said that Folston’s stated reason for not approving the training was that he didn’t have the funding, but Folston showed him that there was unspent money available for Equity Initiatives.
Manager 2 said Folston asked him to sign a statement saying that he would stay in the organization for a year or longer in exchange for taking the training. He said Folston said it was City policy to do that, but Folston did not show Manager 2 the policy, and Manager 2 said he has since learned that “multiple employees have completed this exact training already in other departments.”
After Folston approved the training, Manager 2 urged him to also approve it for Employee 1 because “he was essentially training me, a white man, and refusing to train… a black woman.”
Folston said he initially denied the training for both employees but paid for Manager 2 to take the training after learning it would be offered virtually. He said Employee 1 was able to view the training but did not receive certification and that he was planning on getting Employee 1 certified next year.
Report to the Commission on Solid Waste data
Manager 1 said the toxic environment started when Folston questioned the competency of Manager 2, who was on parental leave at the time. Manager 1 told the investigator that Folston asked Manager 2 to apologize to the Commission on Solid Waste because he presented “inaccurate” data; according to Manager 1, this was because there were “complications” in getting the data, and some of the data was not available.
Employee 2 said Folston used that presentation as a pretext to try to fire Manager 2, saying that because Manager 2 was still on probation, he could “get rid of him for any reason.” This all happened while Manager 2 was on parental leave, and other employees reportedly convinced Folston to extend Manager 2’s probation period and properly evaluate him when he returned to the office.
Changing Manager 1’s responsibilities
Manager 3 told the investigator that she had told Manager 1 that Folston was discussing her area of responsibility without including Manager 1 in the communications. Manager 3 said she’d felt anxiety about coming to work and that Folston was undermining Manager 1.
Manager 1 reported that Folston repeatedly changed the scope of her responsibilities, sometimes announcing the changes in a staff meeting without discussing them with her first. Manager 1 said she explained to Folston that he doesn’t need her permission to make changes, but professional courtesy dictates that he speak to her about the changes before she hears it from subordinate staff.
Employee 2 reported that he asked Folston why Manager 3 was given Compliance responsibilities when Compliance is part of Manager 1’s job description; he said Folston did not respond.
Manager 3, who benefited from the new position, was clearly uncomfortable with how Manager 1 was treated; she told the investigator that Folston had undermined Manager 1 by creating her job, which “removed a core area of responsibility” from Manager 1.
Manager 1 said she learned during a meeting with Human Resources, Folston, Manager 3, and Employee 3 that Folston had previously had discussions with Manager 3 and Employee 3 about changing the scope of her responsibilities. She said, “I was shocked to know he had planned to change my essential job functions but never showed me the courtesy of having a conversation about it.” Manager 1 added that Folston “took accountability for none of his behavior.”
At the next staff meeting, Folston told all the employees that they could no longer work remotely, effective immediately, and Manager 1 told the investigator that employees told her they felt like Folston was retaliating against them because they had reported issues to her.
Manager 1 said the changes were presented to her in a group meeting and that it was problematic because Folston put someone in the new position without a competitive process and inappropriately asked both her Manager 2 for their opinions about this change in her responsibilities, which are unrelated to Manager 2’s responsibilities. According to Manager 1, Folston said he didn’t have to discuss everything with her.
Manager 1 said Manager 3’s job description duplicates her job functions, so a second person is being paid to do the job she was already doing.
Employee 2 said Folston told him he was “tired of [Manager 1] being in every meeting he had with the Compliance Team.” He said that was why he created Manager 3’s position to take Compliance responsibilities away from Manager 1. The employee said he told Folston that if Manager 1’s position were audited, her pay could be reduced, and Folston said he didn’t want to “mess” with her pay, but “he wanted to diminish her responsibilities and assign her projects to do.”
Folston reportedly also talked in staff meetings about creating yet another manager position that would also include some of Manager 1’s responsibilities. Employee 2 asked Folston what Manager 1 would do if he removed all her responsibilities, and Folston “did not appear prepared to answer those questions.” Manager 1 wrote in her statement, “The lack of respect, consideration, basic professional courtesies, and abusive behavior towards me and other office employees has been a critical issue.”
In his interview, Folston told the investigator that Manager 1 was aware of the changes in her responsibilities and “supported it.” He also said he did not take money away from Manager 1 because of the change. He said he “keeps praising and appreciating [Manager 1], and what staff sees is that [Manager 1] has less people she’s supervising.”
Several staff members reported that Folston routinely told people they were “the best in the department and that no one was a close second,” which they said was “divisive.”
Employee 2 said that Folston “seemed to come in with the desire to undermine the office, and that he immediately tried to divide the team.” He said Folston looked for ways to fire Manager 2. Employee 2 also said Folston seemed to consider Manager 1 a threat and said “she wanted the chair.”
Employee 2 told Manager 1 that Folston made comments about staff members being overpaid and not qualified for their positions. Employee 2 said he thought that kind of behavior was unhealthy and divisive.
Manager 3 said Folston obtained copies of everyone’s resumes, compared their educational achievements, and commented to a group that Compliance is the most experienced team and Equity is not very experienced.
Manager 2 said Folston “has a pattern of disparaging his employees and trying to create mistrust and competition within the office” and that Folston told him directly “that he believes that people do their best work in a competitive environment.”
Folston told the investigator that he has reviewed the resumes of staff in every job he’s had. He said he did not question the competency of staff, but it was his assessment that some had very little documented experience in their roles. He further said that he did not disparage staff but asked Manager 1 about staff “to understand the lay of the land in the office.” He said he did not consider Manager 1 to be a threat.
Multiple staff members reported that Folston told them he needed their loyalty. Manager 2 said Folston “appears to value loyalty over commitment to the work.”
Employee 2 said that Folston often reinforced “the concept of loyalty.” Employee 3 said Folston is “always asking for loyalty.”
Manager 3 said when she accepted a management job, Folston told her his expectations would be in the areas of how she managed people, her comfort level with Folston himself, and “looking to see whether you have my back.” Manager 3 said she felt this was inappropriate, and it made her feel uncomfortable. She told Manager 1 that she wondered whether this meant Folston wanted her to cover up unethical activities and also that she was very concerned about staff morale and worried about Folston “getting away with what he has done in the office.”
Folston told the investigator that he did ask staff to be “loyal to the chair,” referring to his position, “because we don’t know who will ultimately be in this role.” He said he had heard staff disparaging him and that they weren’t happy with the way things were going.
Manager 2, who was on paid parental leave when Folston was appointed as Interim Director, told the investigator that although he wasn’t in the office, he heard from co-workers that there was “turmoil” at the office. He said Employee 1 told him that Folston had questioned her expertise and questioned the definition of equity that she intended to use in her work. She told Manager 2 that Folston “questioned why race has to be a part of everything… that it makes people uncomfortable.”
Folston told the investigator that he could see where legislation was going with the “Stop WOKE Act” and said, “We don’t have a shared definition of equity… we need to be able to explain the meaning of this, and we need to be able to teach it in a way that doesn’t alienate folks.”
“Friend of a friend”
Folston reportedly asked Manager 2 to meet with a candidate for a vacancy who was a “friend of a friend.” Manager 2 said the applicant was not qualified for the position, and it “became clear” that the candidate was Folston’s son’s basketball coach; he said Folston later agreed that the candidate was not qualified for the position.
Employee 2 said Folston told him he had selected someone for the Manager 3 position before the job was posted by Human Resources, then, two months later, Folston asked Employee 2 to apply for the position; Employee 2 said he thought there was no point in doing that since Folston had already made his decision. Ultimately, Employee 2 said, the job was advertised for seven days and there was a “limited process” in selecting Manager 3.
Folston told the investigator that the candidate was not his son’s basketball coach but was a head coach at a high school. When someone from Human Resources told him the candidate did not appear to meet minimum qualifications for the position, he said he asked staff to talk to the applicant about any transferable skills.
When he was asked whether he tried to put someone into the Manager 3 position without going through a competitive process, Folston reportedly did not answer the question directly but said that he had spoken to Employee 2 and Manager 3 about their interest in the job, and when Manager 3 was selected in an interim/acting capacity, he announced that to staff.
Employee 2 filed a “formal letter of concern,” writing that Folston attempts to “undermine, discredit, and marginalize the work of employees in an apparent effort to dismantle the very important work of this office, and recreate it to service his personal goals and ambitions at the cost of the employees that support his position.” He concluded, “Never have I experienced this level of leadership inadequacies which led to the emotional instability of some of the members of the team, resignations, and inability to fully function at a high operational level, all in one department.”
In the letter, Employee 2 said Folston had asked him whether a specific individual, who had applied for a job with the City, had previously filed an Equal Opportunity complaint. Employee 2 said he told Folston that he could not provide that information because any decision about the individual’s candidacy could be construed as retaliation. He said the request made him feel “very uncomfortable” and that he did not supply the requested information.
Manager 1 told the investigator that Employee 2 came to her about this and that it happened two weeks after the City Auditor interviewed her about allegations submitted through the City’s hotline that Folston discussed Equal Opportunity complaints with non-City employees.
Folston told the investigator that he had no recollection of this and could not find any emails or Teams messages indicating that this had taken place.
The investigator noted that no claim was actually filed; the inquiry was conducted because a member of management was made aware of concerns about a toxic work environment, including the “formal letter of concern,” which created an obligation to investigate.
The definition of a hostile work environment requires an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment that is based on a complainant’s protected status. The investigator noted that the interviews with staff revealed many similar themes, with similar accounts of various incidents. However, no staff members indicated that the alleged conduct was based on a protected class.
The investigator wrote that the City’s ordinance prohibiting discrimination in employment practices “recognizes ten categories of protected characteristics, including ‘sexual orientation, race, color, gender, age, religion, national origin, marital status, disability or gender identity,'” and since the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion includes staff “of differing gender, race and marital status,” the work environment was not based on any specific protected class, so “there is no cause to believe that a claim of Hostile Work Environment would be sustained.”
The investigator wrote that he was “unable to substantiate that a violation of the Code of Conduct was committed” and that “Toxic Work Environment” has no fixed definition. The investigator was clear that his inability to substantiate a claim of a hostile work environment was based on the definition and not on the pattern of Folston’s behavior that was consistently reported by employees in the office.
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