The Houston Public Library is “hemorrhaging employees” at such a rate that former workers are likening the organization’s current situation to the sinking of the Titanic. Over the course of several weeks — through a dozen hours of interviews with both current and former employees, and a review of hundreds of pages of documents — I’ve learned that employees view the Library as a “toxic workplace,” and that many have lost hope the system can be saved.

Maggie Gordon, columnist for the Houston Landing

“It’s people leaving left and right,” one current employee told me last month. “We’ve just been hemorrhaging employees. We’ve had over 100 vacancies for years, because no one wants to stay.”

Another library worker who reached out to me shortly after tendering their resignation echoed this sentiment. “For you to cycle through so many people, it’s clearly not the people. It’s the environment,” they told me. (Employees have asked that their names not be published, for fear of retribution.) 

The anecdotes that have been shared with me bear out in data collected by City Hall: Within the library, employee attrition rates — or the percentage of workers who’ve left each year — are significantly higher than the average recorded across city departments for each of the past five years. 

According to city data, obtained by the Houston Landing via a public records request, the Library’s turnover was more than double the city average in 2022, at 26.6 percent, compared with 12.4 percent across all city departments. That year, the 400-and-some-employee library system averaged more than two resignations per week. 

Through another public records request, I obtained every exit interview filed by outgoing HPL employees last year. Among those, 44 percent of former employees said they were leaving for better pay and benefits; 28 percent said they would not recommend friends and family to work at HPL; and 13 percent checked a box indicating a “hostile work environment” was a major influence in their decision to leave. 

“We have too many bosses, and not enough workers,” wrote one employee who resigned in February 2022. “The rats are jumping ship and the captains are in the dining hall patting themselves on the back while the ship is running aground. In the communications department alone, the turnover rate is so high it is laughable.”

The sinking ship metaphor didn’t end there. Another employee, who resigned last August, wrote that “the trajectory of this organization is reminiscent of The Titanic. Staff morale is low, turnover rates are high, and it seems that our administration does not care or chooses to turn a blind eye.”

‘Set up to fail’

Library leaders declined to be interviewed for this story.

Several employees, however, have come forward to discuss the “abusive and toxic” environment, pervasive across the Houston Public Library system — ever since city officials began responding to my questions about the rollout of the Library’s cashless system last month with what one employee told me was “a complete lie.” 

Workers say they feel unheard when logging complaints about the library’s “toxic culture” with the city’s human resources department and the office of the inspector general. There seems to be no help in sight for library workers who feel they’ve been “set up to fail,” I’ve been told. 

So they came to a journalist, in hopes that transparency might help correct what has devolved into what one current employee told me is “definitely a toxic culture at this point.” They see the culture as a major hindrance to retaining staff who can help the Library operate efficiently, and reach its true potential as a system that was built to serve millions of readers in this city. 

In recent months, I’ve spoken with nearly a dozen library employees, none of whom felt safe having their names printed. And these employees, clearly, are not the only ones who harbor concerns about what would happen if library leadership knew they were speaking out. 

Speaking up can come back to bite you’

A 2021 PowerPoint presentation by the Library’s Race and Social Justice Task Force, also obtained by the Landing, reports that “staff do not feel as if the library is a safe community to air grievances,” and “there is a fear of retaliation for reporting issues.”

The PowerPoint includes responses to the task force’s annual survey, which the library implemented in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020. The answers staff members gave to the survey’s prompt, “HPL leadership take my concerns seriously and provides me a safe space to air grievances,” are chilling to read. 

“I almost clicked ‘prefer not to answer,’ because I don’t feel safe in the assurance that these responses are anonymous,” one employee wrote.

“I’ve been informed of several employees punished in retaliation of [sic] their grievances,” another answered.

A third employee noted, “The last staff development day, a question was posed … ‘Do you feel like you can safely/openly discuss problems within the organization?’ … everyone answered no. When invited to expand upon this answer, almost no one responded.”

This sentiment isn’t limited to 2021. According to responses to this year’s survey, also obtained by the Landing, employee attitudes have remained unchanged. One employee answered that they would only speak up “so long as my concerns are the same as HPL leadership. Speaking up can come back to bite you.”

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    ‘I can’t say she’s oblivious’

    While I have not been able to engage leadership to discuss this specific column, I know top leaders — including the library’s Executive Director, Rhea Lawson — are aware of these employee concerns.

    “The PowerPoint was presented to her. So I can’t say she’s oblivious,” one former employee told me. “It would ignore her intelligence, and I refuse to do that.”

    Lawson has also received several written complaints from employees, including a 32-page document signed by more than a dozen employees last November, alleging “an atmosphere of fear within HPL,” due to what was described as “bullying” of staff by a member of the library’s senior leadership team. 

    “This is why our staff retention rate is so terrible,” one long-time staffer wrote in the memo, which was obtained by the Landing. 

    Mayor Sylvester Turner — who has been outspoken about his displeasure over what he sees as a concerted effort to dismantle the school district’s libraries by Houston ISD’s new superintendent Mike Miles — is also aware of the situation. Library employees tell me they applaud the stand he’s taking for the school’s libraries. But why, they ask, is he not supporting his own city employees as they battle for the future of Houston’s public libraries?

    ‘Actual changes’

    They feel unsupported and abandoned during a particularly hard time to be a librarian. Across the nation, library employees are enduring abuse from people who propose restricting which books should be allowed on public shelves. Anti-gay protestors are wiping out Pride displays. In Houston, library employees tell me Pride programming and displays during the month of June have been deprioritized in recent years “to avoid rocking the boat.” 

    When librarians — many of whom are paid well below the city average, in pursuit of a job they tell me feels like a calling to ignite curiosity and compassion in readers of all ages — face this kind of external pressure, they need internal support from their leaders. 

    “But instead, you turn around and your bosses are being abusive and toxic, and it’s just disheartening,” one employee said. 

    That’s no way to run a city library. It’s time these complaints are truly listened to, considered and acted upon by someone other than a journalist. 

    As one outgoing employee put it in their exit interview last September: “There is a high turnover rate at HPL for a reason, and if the employees are heard and not just brushed off and actual changes are made, then people will stay.”

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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...