DelDOT reports shows racial, gender disparities

A study shows significant racial and gender issues within the Delaware Department of Transportation, and offers recommendations to improve diversity and inclusion at the agency.

The independent Ivy Planning Group report, released Thursday by DelDOT, focuses on the Maintenance & Operations North District, located in Newark.

“Our work with Ivy this year has been an opportunity for us to have an open and honest conversation about the work environment in the North District and develop real solutions for improving employee culture, which we have already begun to implement,” said Secretary of Transportation Jennifer Cohan in a statement.

“While our department-wide employee survey demonstrates the overall culture of DelDOT is one of pride and respect, we realized that we had concerns about specific areas that appeared to have pervasive behavior issues.”

The announcement follows more than two years of work by the DE Faith in Action Coalition to research discrimination in state government workplaces, and work to advocate for new anti-discrimination measures.

The group of religious and civil rights leaders formed after a group known as the Committee on Racism in State Government released a report on discrimination and racism in state agencies.

The committee was made up of members from IMAC, the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Dover & Vicinity, the Interdenominational Faith Coalition of Sussex County and the NAACP.

After interviewing more than 100 state employees the committee released a report in January, 2016, alleging racism and discrimination, and claiming workers feared retaliation if they reported a hostile work environment.

According to the report, the greatest complaints came from Department of Labor workers, and participants were most fearful of retaliation in Kent and Sussex counties, where the report says blatant racism was more common.

After hiring a new Secretary, the department said it took steps to addressing these issues.

Following the report, the committee released several recommendations:

  • Request the U.S. Department of Justice Employment Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division to launch an investigation into employment patterns and practices in state government;
  • Urge remedial action for state employees filing retaliation complaints;
  • Ask the General Assembly to put aside funding for an independent assessment of human resource management at the Office of Management & Budget and HR;
  • Create a task force focused on racism in state agencies;
  • Create a uniform anti-discrimination complaint process;
  • Review and revise Delaware’s discrimination laws and establish a civil rights commission.

Some of those recommendations have been enacted.

In the fall of 2016, during former governor Jack Markell’s administration, the state contracted with Ivy Planning Group to conduct an independent study of diversity and inclusion-related policies, procedures and organizational culture in state agencies.

In March, Gov. John Carney, D-Delaware, signed an executive order updating anti-discrimination policies within state agencies.

Carney’s executive order came out of the several recommendations Ivy Planning Group put in place during the assessment process, and it was something Carney’s transition team made a top priority as well.

Ivy Planning Group completed its assessment of DelDOT in December. The group worked with the agency to evaluate its work environment and to draft recommendations to address racially-charged issues and an increased number of Equal Employment Opportunity complaints.

DelDOT said minority workers more frequently reported unfair treatment, hiring and promotion decisions. Of the 370 employees at the Newark location, 75 percent are white, five employees are women and 48 employees are persons of color.

Among other problems, the report released Thursday found the work environment is not inclusive, that there are systematic biases and barriers impacting opportunity, there’s an “us vs. them” culture, and issues go unresolved, leading to resentment towards managers.

The report includes white employee perceptions:

“Blacks complain too much. I want them to just come in and do their jobs and maybe they will get leniency. The complainers also are underperformers, with 80 percent of the bad work coming from them.”

“Sixty percent of the under performers are black. The high performers are called ‘the white crew’ and 35-40 percent of them are white. They are well recognized. I don’t feel like symbols like confederate flags are detrimental to black folks.”

And then compares those discernments with Black perceptions:

“The most tenured black employee has not been promoted even though he qualifies for the (next role). He has considerable influence and voice but has not been consulted on how to improve race relations.”

“Racial issues like the complaint (against employee) for using the ‘N’ word against another operator. Nothing happened to him.”

“Minorities are disciplined more than other groups. (Leader) needs to bring consistency to how rules are enforced for all staff.”

The report also highlights barriers against women:

“This is a true barrier—there is a good ole boys network that prevents women from being hired to work in the yards.”

And also includes concerns about how serious complaints are handled:

“There was a sexual harassment issue. Nothing was done about it … I was angry for a while.”

The report breaks down several recommendations to improve the work environment, which include increasing performance management and people management processes and activities, establishing accountability for performance and culture and increasing communication and education.

In a statement, Ivy Planning Group President Janet Crenshaw Smith said DelDOT is proactive in taking steps to improve its work culture, and have already launched a culture team.

“They appreciate the opportunity to have an open dialogue with each other, and to identify their own issues and find ways to resolve them as a team,” she said.

“At a time in our country when people are divided on many issues, the best leaders are providing venues for their workforce to come together in a safe environment to learn about each other. DelDOT’s approach represents a best practice.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.