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A Blackhawk helicopter flies over a canyon as Colorado's Office of Emergency Management responds to Boulder's 2013 flood. An internal investigation was launched after an employee alleged that leadership at state's Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management created a “toxic and hostile” work environment, according to an investigative report obtained by The Colorado Sun. (Joe Amon, The Denver Post via AP Photo, pool)

A new leadership model and “senior leadership intervention” is needed at Colorado’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management in order to build trust and effective communication, a third-party consulting agency said in an assessment report, after receiving consistent feedback from employees describing the leadership in charge of the state’s response to natural and public health disasters as “dysfunctional.” 

The 29-page assessment, completed Thursday by Denver-based consulting agency Investigation Law Group, revealed concerns about the division’s three directors and made several recommendations to improve workplace culture, communication and address concerns about leadership accountability. 

The consultants recommended the division overhaul its leadership model and hire a deputy director to oversee the three offices and communicate the structure to its employees, citing employee confusion about work responsibilities. They also suggested an independent party work with the senior leadership team, for six months to one year, to develop a plan for the division, but immediate steps should be taken to improve accountability. 

The state hired the consulting agency in August after allegations arose of aggressive and inappropriate behavior from one of its directors, Mike Willis. An internal investigation later revealed “concerning statements” about equity, diversity and inclusion within the state’s division that responds to all types of disaster in Colorado. 

The report did not identify any director or employee by name. 

A majority of the employees interviewed (70%) said they were overall satisfied with working for the department, feel respected by their manager and peers, and are proud to tell others that they work for the department, according to the assessment.

But the division was consistently described as “siloed” and employees described a lack of understanding of roles and responsibilities. Employees described the executive leadership team as “dysfunctional,” which they said trickled down the ranks and created distrust and eroded communication, the assessment said.

The consulting agency found that employees had little faith that the director had adequately addressed these concerns and were concerned about workplace culture further deteriorating. 

In a statement Thursday, director Stan Hilkey said the assessment will help clarify areas that need improvement, calling the state’s Department of Public Safety a “learning organization” with “a culture of continuous improvement.”

“Strengthening workplace culture, harmony and satisfaction depends on the unity of effort from all of us, and I’m confident that together we can further align these values with the excellent and critical work that you are known for,” Hilkey said. 

In the assessment, employees identified good communication with their direct managers, good collaboration with their colleagues and flexibility with their remote work environment.

Top concerns listed in the survey included the need for training opportunities for advancement, lack of leadership accountability, poor communication and a toxic work environment. Some employees also identified concerns about sexism, different treatment based on race and behaviors that are counter to an inclusive environment, according to the assessment.

As part of the assessment, the consulting agency conducted site visits and selected 26 employees and leaders to interview, while seven others volunteered to participate, according to the assessment. About 83% of the department’s employees participated in an online survey.

The state paid $40,000 to Investigations Law Group to evaluate the culture, structure and effectiveness of the division, according to the state’s online database of vendors. 

Officials sought an independent review after a Denver Post investigation documented allegations against Willis during his five years at the helm of Colorado’s response to natural and public health disasters. Willis has been suspended twice in the past two years for his behavior that included intimidating workers, throwing objects in rage and berating female employees, the Post reported.

In previous statements to The Colorado Sun, Hilkey said actions have been taken to address employee concerns and Willis’ workplace behavior, and Willis said he took responsibility for his “missteps at DHSEM” and that some events described in The Denver Post article “simply did not happen.” 

During the state’s subsequent internal investigation, several employees complained about discrimination, harassment, retaliation and other alleged workplace violations during interviews, state documents show. The worker who lodged the complaint accused the division’s leadership of creating a toxic work environment and failing to provide leadership and enforce policies.

Olivia Prentzel

Olivia Prentzel is a general assignment writer for The Colorado Sun. Email: oliviaprentzel@coloradosun.com