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The Ramsey County Human Resources Department was supposed to lead efforts to ensure pay equity and improve the overall experience for employees of Minnesota's second-largest county.

But an outside law firm hired last year to conduct a "culture investigation" into the 55-person department unearthed problems including a perceived "hostile work environment," concerns about pay inequities and feelings by employees of color that they are micromanaged and treated differently than their peers.

There is "the overwhelming consensus among staff that they are not being treated respectfully," according to an excerpt from the report prepared by the J. Selmer Law firm based in Minneapolis. "That this concern was raised by so many employees during their interviews, and often in the same way, we cannot conclude that the level of unhappiness in HR is due to individuals and their personalities but more accurately to a failure by HR management to make a serious effort to set a tone in the workplace that meets the county's standards."

Human Resources Director Gail Blackstone has been out on the Family and Medical Leave Act and related leave since September, according to the county. In the meantime, County Manager Ryan O'Connor is personally overseeing the department and instituting changes.

Blackstone declined to comment.

In an interview, O'Connor said he shared the report results with staff in November to be transparent and to acknowledge there's still work to be done.

"I don't know how you can do work around wanting to be the best in terms of talent attraction, retention and promotion if you don't lead from the front by making sure your human resources department lives up to the stated values of your organization," O'Connor said.

Ramsey County Board Chair Toni Carter said she and her colleagues have been kept apprised of this work, and that it's critical Human Resources be an "exemplar" of respectful workplace culture for the rest of the county.

"This is something we are working on aggressively," Carter said. "This shows the dedication and the commitment to achieve the cultural transformation that we need in order to live our values."

In the fall of 2020, O'Connor hired J. Selmer to delve into "ongoing questions, strong feelings and, for some concerns, about Human Resources operations in support of the entire organization," according to a Sept. 23, 2020 e-mail sent to human resources staff.

"This is an investigation into the culture of the department. It is not an investigation into any individual within the department or any singular incident," the e-mail said.

The county paid the outside law firm $175,945.90 to conduct the work.

The county declined to release a copy of J. Selmer's report, but provided the Star Tribune with a November 2021 PowerPoint presentation, authored by O'Connor, that included excerpts from the investigative report and key findings.

The law firm interviewed all 55 employees in the department and reviewed performance appraisals and probation reports from 2010 to 2020.

According to O'Connor's PowerPoint presentation, the report found issues of pay equity in the department.

"Specific instances of pay equity were raised and substantiated through the investigation, and these discrepancies contribute to a culture in which not all employees feel equally valued or supported," the PowerPoint said.

O'Connor said the county has adjusted one employee's salary after identifying an inequity. Human resources staff also are leading a broader examination of compensation into the department, he said.

The investigation also determined that since at least 2010, the department engaged in inconsistent or nonexistent performance appraisal processes, which "demonstrates a lack of leadership and execution from the department in the organization charged with setting the tone, process and overall vision for the employee experience," the PowerPoint said.

While this lack of appraisal affected all department employees, "employees of color perceived this to be a place for bias, discrimination and inequity," it said.

Nearly all county workers receive cost-of-living adjustments and step raises based on labor agreements and compensation agreements that are not tied to job reviews. But O'Connor said the county is instituting regular performance reviews for the human resources department.

The PowerPoint also described a perceived "hostile work environment" in the department.

Human resources "is expected to lead by example in adhering to the employer's standards for a respectful workplace," according to an excerpt from the investigative report. "Under the current leadership of this HR department, however, this is clearly not taking place."

Employees of color feel "disproportionately impacted by an environment of micromanagement and stifled innovation," according to the report.

Of the department's 55 employees, about one-third identify as racially and ethnically diverse.

O'Connor said county officials promised to protect workers privacy as part of the investigation. He said he can't speak to specific instances, but said it was critical to candidly acknowledge employees' feelings and feedback.

One of the hurdles with this kind of self-examination and transparency, he said, is that critics try to spin it into a "gotcha" moment.

"I don't see how we can do this work well if we are afraid to confront the realities that exist both in society and come into your organization," O'Connor said. "We need to confront it by calling it out and creating space for employees to build relationships with one another and not be afraid to talk about how they feel and how they're impacted. At the end of the day, employees need to be at their best to do their best."