I will not beat around the bush.
For a number of years I have heard rumors and complaints of a toxic work environment from employees of the Town of Old Lyme — shouting matches, bullying, petty slights, forged timesheets — and perhaps most troubling — heartfelt fears by at least two employees that their complaints could result, at some point, in retaliation or firing.
So, this fall I filed a Freedom of Information request to try to get to the bottom of the alleged problems, and after a two months of foot-dragging by town officials while they hired a part-time human resources coordinator, I was given a thick packet of lightly-redacted complaints.
Here is a small sample…
“[S}he verbally attacked me, screaming at the top of her lungs that I was nothing but a liar. I was so shocked at the treatment from a coworker and screaming so loud that I jumped up to shut the door. Everyone on the second floor heard her tell me how bad I perform my job and that I was a liar … No consequences came to XXX for her unprofessional and inappropriate behavior.”
“I have had significant periods of intense anxiety outside of work, impacting my ability to sleep and function. My mental health has been harmed by XXXX so many times yet she never, ever has consequences.”
“I’ve been here 27 years, and the Town Hall has never been this toxic … if the Town Hall does not want a union for town hall employees, or a bullying lawsuit, then something needs to be done to improve the working environment.”
“This has been an ongoing issue for over two years now. She has created a hostile work environment for myself. She has told others that I am ‘mentally unfit to do my job’ and subjected myself to answer a series of questions … which has no supporting evidence or documentation, just age-discrimination accusations”
“I remained targeted through countless emails where I’ve been belittled and spoken to in sharp tones and accusations, with many people always copied and blind copied on these emails…”
“She was relentless and worked tirelessly to have XXXX (who worked for the Town for over 35 years) removed from most of her job responsibilities. Little by little, everything was taken away from XXXX, with little regard of her age, health or years of service. XXXX claimed she was senile, had dementia and couldn’t work with her.”
“She was constantly berating me to others as well as to me.”
“She does not even acknowledge my presence if we’re both in the mailroom at the same time. This hateful behavior has made me incredibly anxious about coming to work and has created a hostile and incredibly toxic working environment”
“XXX has said to me some of the same things to me about XXX that she said about XXXX, i.e., useless, senile, antiquated and has dementia.”
These complaints were numerous, detailed and generally credible. Many were petty. Some were much more serious. They were also largely substantiated by outside counsel hired by the town to investigate the matter.
Regarding one employee, Jennifer Dixon, of Kainen, Escalera & McHale, P.C., concluded (to quote selectively)
That you have referred to XXXX, when speaking with co-workers, as a “f***king bitch”.
That you have referred to XXX, when speaking with co-workers, as a “c**t.”
That you have intimidated, threatened and behaved unprofessionally in your behavior towards XXX and other Town employees.
That you have engaged in other inappropriate and unwelcome behavior towards co-workers such as grabbing employees by the hips and humping them from behind, talking to them about porn tapes and saying “that black guy has a big dick”, calling an employee a “chink” due to his slanted eyes, putting your wet finger in employees’ ears and blowing cigarette/cigar smoke in the face on an employee while he was eating lunch and when the employee objected you told him to file a grievance or “there’s the door”.
In fact, the various investigations conducted by Dixon for the town, taken together, are damning. But here’s the catch: however bad the behavior, according to Dixon it fails to meet the state’s standard for workplace discrimination based on
Age, ancestry, color, learning disability, marital status, intellectual disability, national origin, physical disability, mental disability, race, religious creed, sex, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, and status as a veteran.
And it’s that interpretation which appears to have largely satisfied town officials that — freed of the fear of expensive lawsuits — business can go on as usual, if only not to rock the boat.
To be fair, these abuses did not begin under First Selectman Tim Griswold, a Republican, but it is also true that these problems have continued and seemingly worsened under his leadership — with minimal consequences. We also cannot excuse the failure to act by either selectmen Martha Shoemaker, a Democrat, or Matt Ward, a Republican.
More troublesome, are the fears expressed by some town employees that by bringing these accusations to light we court retaliation and loss of employment for some of the complainants if the next elections put the local Democrats in power.
We’ve seen no evidence to support those fears of retaliation, but we don’t doubt their sincerity (which in one case sparked pleading and tears). But already, one of the complainants, under the current administration, has left for other employment.
It is clear to us that the long-running frictions in Town Hall have been compounded by bad feelings over the last elections — and neither party is entirely free of blame for that.
For my own part — and after hearing of recent and further complaints — all I can say is that the status quo cannot stand. Our town employees deserve better.