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Former, current employees warn of repressive culture for escalating complaints

Desiree Halpern | Hatchet Staff Photographer
Desiree Halpern | Hatchet Staff Photographer

A 14-month study of the University’s workplace climate found “a culture of openness and transparency” across GW, according to a 22-page report released Friday.

But interviews, letters and lawsuits from 11 current and former employees instead describe a dysfunctional system for escalating concerns, amounting to what one former official called a “culture of repression.”

The employees claimed that over the last three years, senior leaders ignored or mishandled complaints about illegal financial dealings, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, toxic work environments and attempts to defame top University leaders.

Four said that their attempts to blow the whistle on wrongful University practices cost them their jobs, and all claimed that GW’s Human Resources office or Office of General Counsel did not adequately address their complaints.

Many of the concerns surfaced just as a group of top officials concluded an internal effort to ensure GW meets the standards set by Penn State’s Freeh report, which revealed deep-rooted compliance and cultural issues across Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

GW’s review laid out 35 recommendations to adjust policies related to research, athletics, the Board of Trustees and programs for minors, though the group’s co-chair Doug Shaw said his team saw nothing “problematic.” The review also included a dean-led committee that University President Steven Knapp charged with examining whether issues were properly being escalated to top leaders.

As a result, the University may develop a protocol of escalating complaints to trustees and give them extra training.

Knapp said the University seeks to encourage employees to report issues through avenues like GW’s anonymous reporting hotline, noting that at a large institution like GW, complaints will inevitably surface. Knapp also penned an open letter to the GW community two years ago to encourage anonymous reporting.

“When you’ve got so many thousands of people, you’re going to have issues that are going to arise,” he told The Hatchet last week. “What you try to do is have enough civility as you can and also create a system where people feel safe to come forward whenever they have some kind of a concern. If that’s not happening, that needs to be fixed.”

Fear of retaliation
When associate nursing professor Kimberly Acquaviva tried to alert top leaders of what she believed to be a slander attack brought against former business school dean Doug Guthrie this summer, she said GW did not take her concerns seriously.

She met with officials in HR and General Counsel multiple times, and said she got nowhere. She then decided to contact Knapp and Provost Steven Lerman directly, according to emails obtained by The Hatchet.

“If [General Counsel’s] goal is to cultivate a culture of silence in order to discourage reporting, they are moving in the right direction,” Acquaviva wrote to Knapp and Lerman on Aug. 14. She declined to comment this month.

Another employee, John Lombardi, who managed federal contracts with the University’s research office, said he tried to report that a co-worker illegally took control of his $5 million project. After repeatedly contacting HR with verbal and written complaints, he brought his concerns to the University’s legal office.

That move put a target on his back, he said, and he was fired two months later, which he claimed was shortly after his supervisor learned he had gone to General Counsel.

“I became the bad guy,” Lombardi said. “In my opinion, I should step in and should be the honest broker in these things. But I think when you’re dealing with General Counsel and HR, they favor the higher-level person. It’s really difficult to get your point across.”

A former high-level investment official, Carol Ann Lindsey, also claimed she was fired after trying to alert her supervisors about illegal financial dealings.

She contacted an outside accounting ethics group after she said GW’s chief investment officer dismissed her concerns about misreported data in GW’s 2013 investment report. Two weeks later, she was told not to return to work – a move that she called “willful, malicious and oppressive” in a lawsuit filed last month.

University spokeswoman Candace Smith said while she cannot comment on specific cases, she denied any claim that GW retaliated against employees and said the legal team “will vigorously defend these cases in court.”

“The appropriate forum for resolving these issues is in court, and not in the press,” she added.

Another high-level administrator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she still works at GW, said she knew that employees held back from reporting concerns out of fear for their jobs.

“Clearly there are issues in terms of escalation. I do think there is a punitive culture at GW that someone has to be held responsible for something,” she said.

A culture in question
As weeks turned into months and even years, multiple employees said the concerns they took to HR were ignored or pushed away.

Most said they left a paper trail: dozens of exit interviews outlining specific complaints, meetings with HR and General Counsel staff, anonymous letters and formal grievances made against employers or supervisors.

“I would go to HR continuously and say, ‘You need to come to my rescue,’” said Lombardi, a 30-year armed forces member. “Maybe it’s my fault. I used to be a soldier, and when the boss tells me to do something, I salute and I move out.

Each of the 11 past and present employees said the HR process was far from transparent, even after in-person meetings and phone calls with top officials in that office and across the University.

David Marshall, an ex-staffer in the Graduate School of Political Management, said he and four others filed multiple complaints with HR that their boss and school director Mark Kennedy discriminated against gay employees.

In addition to multiple meetings with HR, he called GW’s anonymous hotline in February 2012, breaking down in tears during the 20-minute phone call as he asked to be transferred to another department. He said he mentioned “at least four times” in the call that he feared retaliation from Kennedy.

Over the next few weeks, Marshall said Kennedy was given more direction from HR, but the work climate did not improve. Marshall said he ultimately stopped reporting complaints “not because the discrimination had stopped, but because it became obvious to me [that top officials] had no interest in helping me.” Then in May 2013, he was fired for allegedly mishandling the schools’ financial reports.

“HR does not have a good reputation at GW for stuff like this. Usually the low man on the totem pole is not the winner. They’re the part of the problem,” Marshall said.

Another former GSPM employee said they did not report Kennedy’s allegedly homophobic behavior “out of fear that Mr. Kennedy will retaliate against me and ultimately fire me,” the staff member wrote in a 2012 letter obtained by The Hatchet.

The University rejected Marshall’s claims this summer, a decision that he unsuccessfully appealed. Kennedy told The Hatchet in June that “the decision to end his employment at the University was reviewed and approved by Human Resources and was entirely proper.”

Sabrina Ellis, the vice president for human resources, said in an email last week that “the University does not comment on specific personnel issues, but when reports of compliance or management issues are raised to Human Resources they are promptly investigated” to collect facts and give both parties a chance to respond. She declined to say how the office decides which matters to bring to higher levels of the University.

Concerns also surfaced from more than a half-dozen employees who willingly left their jobs at the University Counseling Center because of a “dysfunctional” work environment.

After 11 of the center’s employees quit between 2009 and 2011, top administrators sat with each staff member and began an intervention to retrain the center’s leadership. But counselors said HR officials and other administrators “blatantly ignored and covered up” those concerns, which the staffers said they did not challenge out of fear of retaliation.

Marshall, the former GSPM employee, said he was told during multiple meetings with his school’s administrators that he he had few options outside of HR.

“The dean said there’s not much you can do,” Marshall said. “Here I am telling [the dean] what was happening in one of his schools, and he was then saying, ‘We have to leave it in their hands.’”

– Cory Weinberg contributed to this report

This post was updated Nov. 11 at 9:48 a.m. reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that associate nursing professor Kimberly Acquaviva brought complaints to Human Resources and the Office of General Counsel. She went only to the general counsel. We regret this error.

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