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Fire chief turmoil factored into Johnson City's employee survey results

Zach Vance • Updated Sep 28, 2017 at 11:31 PM

Johnson City Human Resources Director Steve Willis referred to the city’s employee survey and subsequent action plan as “just as important, if not more important, than any project this city will undertake.”

For the first time, city officials hired an independent firm, National Research Center Inc., earlier this year to gauge its employees’ views related to their work environment.

Out of 917 eligible employees, 467, about 51 percent, completed the strictly web-based 100-plus question survey, which measured communication, organizational ethics, wages and benefits among other topics.

“Our employees are our most important resource. We have to quit thinking about potholes and think about people. I don’t know how else to say that,” Willis said.

Although the results were released in August, city commissioners joined Willis, City Manager Pete Peterson and NRC officials Thursday to review the survey’s findings and discuss the next steps.

As expected, not all of the results were pretty, especially since the survey was conducted in late March and early April — around the same time turmoil ensued between some Johnson City firefighters and former Chief Mark Scott over harassment allegations, which received heavy media coverage.

One of the most alarming survey results was just 29 percent of city employees believed overall staff morale was “excellent” or “good,” and considering the ongoing fire chief saga, just 2 percent of fire department respondents believed overall staff morale was high.

During that snapshot in time, fire department respondents also rated Johnson City’s reputation among staff, employee appreciation and applying discipline fairly and consistently relatively poor compared to the majority of other departments, which factored into the city’s overall average.

NRC analyst Damema Mann estimated the fire department’s responses skewed results, in some cases, by as much as 40 percentage points.

In its findings report, NRC officials wrote, “Employees commonly had different views depending on which department they belonged to. Overall, employees in Parks and Recreation, Transit Department and the Police Department were more likely to give a rating higher than average for all employees, while employees in the Fire Department gave lower ratings than other departments for many questions, including those relating to respect and ethics, communication and decision-making, wages and benefits and the employee-supervisor relationship.”

The media coverage of the fire department conflict likely also influenced results, NRC researcher Michelle Kobayashi said.

“This survey is a survey of perceptions. So external factors can influence the results as much as internal factors,” Peterson said. “As the presenters told us today, the impact of the media coverage of the situation in the fire department probably impacted, fairly significantly, the survey results.”

Kobayashi said the fire department alone wasn’t responsible for all the poor results. Finance employees commonly provided lower-than-average ratings, as well, the report stated.

Since Scott’s retirement and the hiring of new Fire Chief Jim Stables, it’s conceivable fire department responses could differ now.

In addition to those concerns, some commissioners were also wary of the survey’s difference in responses to similar questions, creating some contradiction in results.

Compared to national employee baselines compiled by NRC, Johnson City received higher ratings in 10 categories, similar ratings in 40 categories and lower ratings in 76 categories.

NRC researchers suggested the city focus on two or three issues, make changes and survey again in a few years to see if progress had been made.

Evaluating numerous local governments across the country, including Sevierville, Kobayashi said she’s never heard of a city making employee survey results public, like Johnson City did. She also said she’s never actually sat down with a city’s elected officials to review results.

Kobayashi also commended Willis’ proactive approach, as he has already established an 80-plus member, eight-team focus group to address issues revealed in the survey.

“We’re addressing communication, employee recognition, wages and benefits, employees relationship with their supervisor and employee morale as a whole, which really ties it all together,” Willis said.

Already out of the focus groups, Willis said employees have shared solutions that may not have been thought of otherwise. The groups will meet one last time before Willis drafts a report compiling all that input for city leaders to mesh with their input.

“You’re never going to grow an organization with a top-down mentality. It has to be within,” Willis said.

Email Zach Vance at [email protected] Follow Zach Vance on Twitter at @ZachVanceJCP. Like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/ZachVanceJCP.

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