By Celia Hack, The Wichita Beacon
In an effort to improve recruitment, racial equity and community relations, Sedgwick County will begin surveying its employees this month on the state of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.
In February, the county signed a $102,000 contract with its first-ever diversity, equity and inclusion consultant, Hicks-Carter-Hicks LLC, which will work for nine to 12 months on a diversity, equity and inclusion plan.
The contract came after a 2021 report where multiple former Sedgwick County employees anonymously reported complaints of discrimination and racism. Last month, the county paid $22,000 to a former employee to settle a racial discrimination lawsuit. And The Wichita Beacon spoke with several former Sedgwick County employees about what they perceived as a hostile work environment that was amplified for people of color, women and LGBTQ people. Two of them filed discrimination complaints against the county or the Sheriff’s Office in 2021 and 2022 with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
“It was obvious that they had no respect for me as an employee or person of color or even the fact that I had elderly parents at home and that’s why I wore a mask,” said Bonny Patrick, a Black woman who retired from the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office in 2021 and filed an EEOC complaint in 2022.
But County Manager Tom Stolz says the decision to pursue the consultant was not in direct response to employee complaints or EEOC complaints, of which 22 have been filed against the county since 2017. The county included diversity as a key part of its strategic plan in 2019 and has been seeking to make progress ever since then.
“I didn’t even know about these complaints at the time,” Stolz said. “… But those complaints corroborate that we’re on the right track. I mean, clearly we got to get better.”
How Sedgwick County’s DEI consultant will work
The county sought to hire a diversity and inclusion officer starting in July 2020.
“It was around the time of COVID and around the time of George Floyd, and the civil unrest, that we really knew that we had to move forward on what we were going to do with diversity,” said Tania Cole, assistant county manager.
The county had no success filling the position, even after three rounds of interviews. In July 2021, the county decided to pursue a DEI consultant instead.
After the county signed the contract with Hicks-Carter-Hicks this February, they are now beginning the data collection process. Following the employee survey, the consultant will gather focus groups of random employees and employees of different identity groups, like LGBTQ employees, to get more feedback.
The consultant will seek feedback from all county departments, including those who work under elected officials such as the sheriff, district attorney or county treasurer.
After analyzing this data and reviewing the county’s policies and procedures for implicit bias, Hicks-Carter-Hicks will present recommendations on actions the county can take to improve diversity and inclusion. Cole said the report will go to the county’s leadership team, but she doesn’t “see any reason why that report can’t go out to employees” as well.
The consultant will also help the county set up a DEI council — a group of key stakeholders with staff and community partners — and define metrics that the county can use to measure progress regarding diversity and inclusion. This could include the demographics of employees, Stolz said.
“From a gender perspective, I think the county does well,” Stolz said. “But in the race area, I think we’re deficient in Hispanic and African Americans. We should be matching what the census … is telling us. We have work to do there.”
The county disproportionately employs more white people than the Sedgwick County population as a whole. The county also employs more women: about 54% of employees are women and 46% are men, as of 2021.
When The Wichita Beacon requested demographic information by department in August 2021, the county said it was unable to provide it.
“Some of our departments are small and even without names, this information could prove to be personally identifiable,” said Bethany Corral, human resources compensation manager, in an email. The Kansas Open Records Act exempts “individually identifiable records” outside of names, positions and salaries.
After the consultant’s contract finishes, the county plans to reignite the effort to hire a DEI officer. Stolz said he hopes to see them help track and maintain departmental demographic data. He added it will be public information.
Former employees react to diversity, inclusion work at Sedgwick County
Former county employee Bonny Patrick began working with Sedgwick County in information technology in 2000, starting out in the District Attorney’s Office and moving to the Sheriff’s Office in 2019.
In October 2021, the Sheriff’s Office placed Patrick on restricted duty, a move she felt was in retaliation after expressing concerns about discrimination and harassment in the office in September. Patrick retired that winter — at 60, several years earlier than she planned — and filed an EEOC complaint against the Sheriff’s Office on the basis of age, race and color in January. She said she did not feel welcomed or included in the Sheriff’s Office’s culture. At the time of publishing, Patrick said she is waiting to hear whether the EEOC found probable cause that discrimination occurred.
When asked by The Beacon about the complaint, Sheriff Jeff Easter denied that Patrick was placed on restricted duty out of retaliation for complaints about discrimination. He said that Patrick was placed on restricted duty for “workplace issues she was causing within the team” and other reasons he could not detail due to privacy concerns around “medical issues.”
Easter added that he is in support of the county’s investment in a DEI consultant, saying it could help with issues that don’t rise to the level of complaints and provide education to his employees. But he said he is “absolutely not” concerned that the Sheriff’s Office discriminates against employees based on race, sex and age.
Hiring a DEI consultant is “beyond necessary,” Patrick said. She said she hopes the consultant can help the county create “a true process for employee complaints.”
“And for it to be laid out in a fashion that (is) not looking to point fingers, but to resolve issues,” Patrick said. “Because a lot of times, it’s just lack of compassion, lack of understanding that everyone didn’t grow up the same way you do.”
The Sheriff’s Office has the authority to oversee all internal complaints, but Easter said he chooses to send complaints regarding discrimination, sexual harassment and workplace violence to the county’s Human Resources department. Stolz added that the county instituted a new dispute resolution policy in October 2021 that aims to resolve interpersonal conflict between employees or between employees and the organization. The process is available to all county employees except for those within the district attorney’s and sheriff’s offices.
Patrick emphasized that her experience with discrimination was limited to her time at the Sheriff’s Office. But in the exit survey commissioned by the county last year, at least 13 comments addressed what the respondents characterized as a racist culture, racist leadership or exclusion of minorities within Sedgwick County.
Stolz said that the county leadership team will be “the first ones in line” to participate in diversity, equity and inclusion training.
“We have to figure out better ways to educate employees about others’ cultures and others’ stations in life,” he said.
Another former employee, Stacey Burke, worked in the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office in the jail from 1996 to 2020, ultimately rising to the rank of detention captain in 2016. She retired in 2020 at 54, years earlier than she planned. In the year after she retired, Burke struggled with severe health challenges that she attributes to a stressful work environment.
Burke, a white woman who is lesbian, filed an EEOC complaint against the county and Sheriff’s Office after she left in 2020, on the basis of age, sex and disability. She felt she’d been passed over for an opportunity to move to first shift due to her gender, sexual orientation and age. The position was instead given to a more junior male employee. Burke said she is waiting to hear whether the EEOC found probable cause that discrimination occurred.
Burke added that she felt a “good ol’ boys club” mentality pervaded the workplace. In the exit survey the county commissioned last year, at least 10 comments mentioned what respondents characterized as a culture of a “boys’ club” or “buddy system” within the county, a characterization with which former employees who spoke with The Wichita Beacon agreed.
Easter said Burke was not considered for the first-shift opportunity because she had already verbally shared her upcoming retirement date, which Burke denies. He added that he is “not at all” concerned that an “ol’ boy’s club” is present in the Sheriff’s Office and noted the diversity of his staff in gender and race.
“People can say whatever they want, but where’s the proof that there’s a good ol’ boys system?” Easter said. “A good ol’ boys system to me means it’s all males running the place, it’s an all-male opinion, and that’s the only thing that we go by, and we don’t listen to anybody else that’s female. So, sorry, that holds no water for me.”
Stolz, Easter and Assistant County Manager Russell Leeds all worked together at the Wichita Police Department prior to coming to Sedgwick County. Stolz said the three have known one another for around 30 years.
“I think there’s always a worry that there’s a good ol’ boy network,” Stolz said. “The only way I know to address that is let’s take a look at it, and let’s diversify it.”
Burke said the county shouldn’t need to spend $102,000 of taxpayer money for a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant, adding that she wished the money could go to deputies working long hours in the jail.
“They could solve this issue without having to hire someone to come in and tell them exactly what all of us are telling them,” Burke said. “Be fair, straight across the board.”
But Stolz said that the investment is worthwhile: “Sometimes I think it’s worth the money to get an outside perspective.”
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Photo credit: Sedgwick County is hiring its first-ever diversity, equity and inclusion consultant. (Selena Favela/The Beacon)