Criminal charges against a former Lincoln County Department of Social Services unit supervisor reported this week should give rise to serious concerns about the county’s preventative and responsive policies, in light of the need to serve the public, ensure that county employees do not encounter a hostile work environment, avoid undue liability and ensure the public that its confidence in county government is not misplaced.
The case in question involved claims that this former county employee attacked a colleague under his direct supervision after the two had socialized outside the workplace. From conversations with county officials and viewing the specific policies of the Department of Social Services, it appears that the situation in this case, prior to the alleged attack, had already violated DSS policies forbidding a sexual relationship between a supervisor and someone reporting directly to that person. However, it also appears that the same two individuals going out for drinks was hardly a clear-cut violation of either county or DSS policies.
Learning from what happened in this case, county officials should consider establishing much stricter and clearer policies regulating fraternization between supervisors and those reporting to them. The work relationship between these parties is inherently unequal. Any personal relationship would be tainted by this unequal footing. The potential for the supervisor to abuse a position of authority over the other employee’s life, to discriminate for or against that employee because of the relationship or to otherwise make workplace decisions based on the relationship and not what is best for the taxpayers of Lincoln County is considerable. All of these contribute to substantial liability, with the real possibility of taxpayers being held accountable for situations of harassment, discrimination, favoritism or sexual abuse that could result. The county should do as many other governmental agencies and businesses have done — require that supervisors cannot date anyone over whom they have authority, without first giving up that position of authority.
In the specific incident within DSS, not all details are known to the public and no one has been convicted of wrongdoing. DSS Director Susan McCracken has told the Times-News that she does not believe there is a liability issue for taxpayers in this situation. Nevertheless, the incident draws attention to a shortcoming in the county’s existing policies that county commissioners should move to address.
A separate concern growing out of this incident is whether that department is taking the matter seriously enough. McCracken assures the Times-News that no review of the division in which the accused held supervisory authority is needed. Yet it’s clear that the whatever happened began in the workplace and the supervisor resigned without disciplinary pressure some time after the incident. This suggests a workplace in which additional problems may remain concealed.
This specific department has been the source of many complaint calls the Times-News has received over the years. If those were merely from family members who disagreed with DSS actions affecting them, it would be of no special note. But parties with organizations that work with DSS on a regular basis, both law enforcement and nonprofit entities, have told the Times-News that they have come to expect complacency, condescension and a general lack of professionalism from this department, with the accused in this incident being singled out for specific criticism. Yet McCracken says she is confident that anyone with legitimate concerns would contact her and could do so without any fear of reprisal. This viewpoint unfortunately seems both naive and aloof.
In light of this incident, now is a good time for the county to trigger an independent review of what’s happening in the division of DSS affected. It may be also be a good time to break up some existing teams, move some managers around and generally shake things up. Simply assuming that the system is adequately policing itself in the face of a such an incident doesn’t make sense.
None of this is intended as broader criticism of McCracken’s overall leadership at DSS, where she has demonstrated considerable wisdom and managerial skill. In this case, however, her trust in her system and her employees is insufficient to reassure the public without independent verification.