They asked that they not be retaliated against. 

On Nov. 8, 2022, four employees of the Houston Public Library — along with a few former employees — sat down with the Library’s Executive Director Rhea Lawson to address what they describe as a “hostile work environment.” But before they even began, they asked one basic favor: That their assertions not be used against them. 

Maggie Gordon, columnist for the Houston Landing

Lawson assured them of such. “No retaliation,” she promised, according to a recording of the meeting, which I received via an open records request.

Yet in the 11 months since, library employees have informed me that one of those employees has been fired; one is in the process of being terminated, having just met last Friday for a “Loudermill hearing,” during which a public employee can contest plans for their dismissal; one was recently passed over for a promotion; the fourth was denied a request for a job reclassification.

In addition to listening to a recording of the meeting, I have spoken with several employees — both current and former — who were present. They have asked to have their names withheld, citing fears of further retaliation. 

And that doesn’t surprise me. I’ve been writing about issues at the library for several months. After a reader tipped me off that a switch to a cashless printing system across all the library branches had resulted in a lack of access for many Houstonians, I began hearing from a growing chorus of library workers that the system’s issues run much deeper than printing problems. 

In August, after speaking with nearly a dozen current and former library employees who detailed a “toxic workplace” with strikingly high turnover, the Houston Landing published a form through which additional employees could reach out to share their concerns. 

A man walks past Houston's Central Public Library
A man walks past Houston’s Central Public Library on Tuesday, July 11, 2023 (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

More than 40 people did just that. And within that influx of information, I’ve seen a trend continue to crystallize: Library employees do not feel valued — or in many cases, even safe — at work. Or, as one employee who has since left the library put it: “At one point, a person with the senior leadership team told my marketing manager, ‘The culture at the Library is s–t.’”

That’s a pretty broad-brush statement. But the November meeting puts it into focus. Employees spoke candidly with Lawson, listing grievances about a member of the senior leadership team that included, “bullying, intimidation, coercion, staff manipulation, workplace violence in the form of hitting on furniture, obsessive monitoring, profane language, aggressive body language and arm swinging toward staff members.”

Library workers asked Lawson to do something about their complaint within 10 business days — a move Lawson said would be impossible during the month of November, as the holiday season gets underway. 

At first, when nothing changed among the library’s leadership following the meeting, the workers worried their complaints had fallen on deaf ears. Three of the employees filed complaints to the city’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG). Library employees tell me they have also filed formal grievances with the city’s human resources department. 

Finally, action was taken. But it was a far cry from what the employees had asked for. The very employee who asked for assurances that there would be no retribution was targeted for termination. According to several emails and interviews I’ve received and conducted with more than a handful of library employees, that particular employee was singled out as a problem. Leadership pressured the employee’s manager to fire the employee. 

The manager refused. And as the pressure increased, the manager resigned in protest. That manager’s last day was on a Friday. The following Monday, the employee from the November meeting was fired. 

Now is the part in any piece of journalism when the reporter is supposed to flip and show you what the “other side” has to say. I’ve reached out to the library, to the human resources department, and even to the mayor’s office — after obtaining a recording of a separate meeting in which library workers asked the mayor for help, just hours after the Landing’s first story about the cashless issues was published.

It’s not so much that they’ve declined to comment. As Mary Benton, director of the Mayor’s Office of Communications explained after my third request for a comment from Mayor Sylvester Turner on the issue, “The mayor has not ‘declined to comment’ because I have not discussed it with him.”

Benton continued, “These are personnel matters. He’s not going to discuss personnel matters in the media. Last week, human resources sent a statement to you explaining how this is being handled.”

Houston's Central Library
Houston’s Central Library, Tuesday, July 11, 2023, in Houston. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

Human resources did indeed send me a statement last week, explaining the department’s position:

“The (library) representatives were advised by Director Cheeks to file their individual complaints with the Office of the Inspector General,” Alisa M. Franklin-Brocks, chief of staff for Human Resources Director Jane Cheeks, wrote in an email on Oct. 3. “If the employees followed Director Cheeks’ instructions and at the conclusion of the review of the complaints filed, the Office of the Inspector General will determine if the complaints raised warrants an investigation in compliance with Executive Order 1-39: Establishment of Office of Inspector for Investigation of Employee Misconduct or if the complaints should be reviewed and handled by the Human Resources Director.”

The library’s communications staff copy-pasted the same statement in response to my repeated requests for comment. 

Again, I’m not surprised. 

The Houston Public Library has been — what’s the exact antonym of transparent? — opaque at every turn since I first began asking questions about the cashless policy. Some of that makes sense: The library’s communications department has suffered the most turnover in recent months and years. The manager who resigned rather than fire her employee was the previous media contact. The majority of the communications team is reporting to their third manager in less than two years. 

Earlier this year, the links on the library’s website directing reporters to a media representative for interviews disappeared from the site. No one I’ve talked to is quite sure when that happened, though it came to the attention of several employees on May 1. 

I’m not the only reporter who’s been frustrated by that deletion: A journalist at American Libraries Magazine emailed library leaders in early July to bemoan the “labyrinthine process” to book an interview. 

Other reporters are just ignored. I reviewed the emails between library employees and reporters from a variety of outlets, which I obtained through a public records request, and learned that it’s quite common for library leaders to email back and forth about a journalist’s questions before deciding against answering a reporter. 

I’d bask in the comfort of knowing I’m not alone, but this particular moment of camaraderie is nothing to celebrate. 

Library employees continue to sound the alarm about what one employee called the system’s “uncomfortable and toxic workplace” in the November meeting, even as they become targets for retribution. 

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    “We have followed the steps that we’ve been directed to follow in terms of reporting. We are really trying to do what we need to do to resolve it in-house. And we started within the library, and then brought it out to HR, and now we are bringing it to you,” an employee told Turner during the July 13 meeting, after once again beginning the conversation with a request for an assurance those employees speaking out would not be retaliated against. 

    “There have been reports to OIG,” the employee continued, noting that complaints have now been issued by 55 current employees and 15 former employees. Some employees have filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the employee continued, “because they have been turned away basically by the OIG, because of inaction.”

    Turner, who leads the city’s staff of about 22,000 employees, responded to the library employees emphatically, directing them to reach out to human resources with their complaints. 

    “There’s a process, and there’s art in the process,” he said during the meeting. “And 22,000 employees cannot do my job. Otherwise you’ve got 22,000 mayors. And it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work.”

    While Turner told Human Resources Director Cheeks in the meeting that he is “fully empowering” her to investigate the issues raised, library employees have lost hope during what they see as three months of inaction — with the exception of the retaliatory acts — since. 

    Amid this silence, the only official answers I’ve been able to glean center around refusals to discuss the topic as the checks and balances within our city’s government — like the HR department and the OIG — have time to work. 

    I would love to see evidence that this is happening. But at this moment, everything I’ve seen and heard points to City Hall’s attempts to ignore the issue, or stamp it out, in hopes it will go away. 

    I hope they prove me wrong. 

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    Maggie Gordon is a columnist who has worked at newspapers across the country, including the Stamford Advocate and the Houston Chronicle. She has covered everything from the hedge fund industry and education...