Education

Firm finds discrimination, fear of retaliation in final employment review of University of Iowa

'The frequency of comments regarding retaliation is notable'

The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top l
The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph. (The Gazette/file photo)

IOWA CITY — Few University of Iowa employees would reveal their identities as required to participate in a review of the institution’s personnel practices, but many of those who did told of workplace discrimination, hiring bias and fear of retaliation.

“Many employees stated they feared retaliation if they complained about unfair treatment,” according to a final report, released Friday, from Fredrikson & Byron P.A., a Des Moines law firm hired by the UI to conduct an employment practices study.

“Employees expressed that they did not trust the university, their supervisors, or (human resources) to protect them from retaliation.”

A total of 18,720 UI employees were invited by email in August and September to contact the law firm if they had concerns about inequitable treatment. The appeal was part of a pared-back review that UI President Bruce Harreld announced two years ago after the institution paid $6.5 million to settle two sexual harassment and discrimination cases brought by former Field Hockey Coach Tracey Griesbaum and former Associate Athletics Director Jane Meyer.

The pared-back review into inequitable treatment was not anonymous. Employees were told to provide their name, number and employment unit at the UI.

“Anonymous reports will not be accepted for purposes of this review,” according to an email message from Chief Human Resources Officer and Associate Vice President Cheryl Reardon, who said the final report wouldn’t disclose that identifying information.

Only 102 of the 18,720 invited to respond did — just half a percent.

In a statement, Reardon said the UI “committed significant time and resources to determine how best to improve our workplace culture, and my hope is that the resulting changes make a real difference for faculty and staff.”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

The review started with a sweeping evaluation of the Department of Athletics, target of the settled lawsuits, and was supposed to continue in the same fashion with the academic and operational units, as well as UI Health Care. But its focus shifted. The UI in August scaled back the scope so it could redirect resources toward “developing a new training model for supervisors” — which the campus also announced Friday, and launched this month.

That model — requiring about 3,000 UI supervisors to complete “specially designed training” by the end of the year —— was crafted to be “flexible in delivery,” according to the UI Office of Strategic Communication.

The training’s overview presentation and three courses each take about 1.5 hours to complete. The supervisors can take the training online and in person with a live facilitator. Although supervisors must complete the overview presentation, they “have the option to test out of the courses,” according to UI communications.

The report characterized the few who responded as “a small number considering the 18,720 employees who received the email.”

“Of the 102 employees we interviewed, only 57 stated concerns of inequitable treatment based on protected class,” the report noted.

In outlining employee concerns, the report acknowledged “fear of retaliation may have prevented some women from participating in this review and may prevent others from requesting disability accommodations or complaining of unfair employment practices.”

“The individuals who called to discuss their concerns are a very small sample of employees,” the final report said. “But the frequency of comments regarding retaliation is notable because fear of retaliation prevents reporting, and the university cannot address unfair treatment unless it is reported.”

The report organized concerns and recommendations into several categories, including recruiting and hiring; compensation and performance evaluations; and equitable treatment.

Equity

Fewer than 30 administrative employees reported concerns of unfair treatment based on protected class. Although some of those who did said the workplace is not inclusive or respectful of racial minorities, most aired concerns involving age discrimination.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“Several employees were concerned that older employees with more experience have been treated differently when it comes to reorganizations, furloughs, time off from work, and work assignments,” the report said.

One woman, according to the report, felt “isolated and labeled after being told by another employee that her race and gender would make it difficult for her at the university.”

Among faculty, complaints emerged in almost every academic unit of favoritism and poor treatment from supervisors, superiors and colleagues. Instructors and lecturers said faculty members are “disrespectful,” and staff complained of “bullying.”

Older employees suggested reorganizations had been designed to eliminate their jobs and force them to quit.

While the review acknowledged the UI has policies prohibiting retaliation against employees who complain of inequitable treatment, it found “opportunity to fortify this message.”

Hiring

Some employees who participated in the review expressed concerns about the UI’s use of waivers from the formal external search process.

Even if a chosen internal candidate has the needed skills and qualifications, “they still questioned the decision to exclude external candidates or even other current university employees.”

The review pointed out that the UI has assigned employees additional responsibilities, characterized as “career advancement”; moved a position and labeled it “career shift”; and upgraded employees through promotion.

“Some units may be employing these methods instead of opening positions to external applicants,” according to the report. “There may be good reasons for doing this, but employees questioned how the university justified exceptions for some and not for others, and some employees suspected that positions were awarded based on personal preferences and connections.”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

The law firm advised the UI to re-examine search waiver criteria.

‘Resulted in changes’

Reardon, in a statement, said the UI will look at the recommendations to ensure “we create the most inclusive and productive work environment possible.”

“Conducting a thorough and deliberative review of our employment practices has already resulted in changes at the UI,” she said.

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.