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San Francisco’s Department of HR, embroiled in scandal, must be investigated — from top to bottom

Joe Eskenazi

Sep 28, 2020

HR personnel in multiple departments claim city’s Dept. of Human Resources has edited racial grievances out of workers’ complaints

The terms “cinematic” and “Human Resources manager” are not a natural match. But it’s San Francisco in 2020, and this city does provide.

As such, the mayor, every supervisor, and literally hundreds of city employees were jolted by a Sept. 18 email from Micki Callahan that was so over-the-top that several veteran government hands told me they seriously questioned if Callahan had been hacked and this email was a forgery.

Considering Callahan is the longtime head of the Department of Human Resources (DHR) and the subject line of her email was “Corruption at DHR … ” this was not an unreasonable supposition.

And forgery was the subject of this email.

In it, Callahan blamed a former HR manager named Rebecca Sherman for misleading a Black female Muni worker who’d filed a discrimination case. Sherman, she said, misinformed the employee that the city would provide her with a fat settlement and promotion. What’s more, Callahan blamed Sherman for forging this settlement, forging the signatures of two deputy city attorneys and Muni director Jeffrey Tumlin, forging texts and emails from a payroll manager ensuring the worker that money and a promotion was coming, and deleting internal records of this case to cover her tracks.

Even with all of these cinematic details, people tend to glaze over when they hear the term “HR.” That’s too bad. It’s an influential and powerful department with an incredibly broad reach — remember, San Francisco has tens of thousands of employees earning billions and billions of dollars.

But if it’s cinematic details you require: A copy of the alleged bogus settlement agreement obtained by Mission Local (embedded below) puts the dollar amount promised the aggrieved Muni worker at just under $514,000.

Sherman allegedly copped to all this and more in a written statement offered along with her resignation. Your humble narrator asked for that document via a public records request but was rebuffed, as it’s part of an ongoing City Attorney investigation.

We get it. That’s understandable. But one can’t escape that we are being asked to trust many allegations that reveal a breakdown of trust. At least for now, we are being asked to believe things that are — by their very nature — not believable.

Across the city, friends and former colleagues of Sherman’s were blindsided. “Becca” was described, repeatedly, as a smart, caring young woman who was “Southern friendly.” More relevant, she was also a “capable lawyer” — though a perusal of the state of Alabama bar association site reveals her license to practice law is suspended. (Alabama bar officials said this occurred in July and characterized it as a “disciplinary issue” — but haven’t yet responded to queries for details).

But, most relevant of all, she was a manager in this department who had handled other negotiated settlements.

So that means she knew this alleged cockamamie scheme had zero chance of success.

That’s because there are many, many steps between concocting a stack of bogus legal papers adorned by bogus signatures and being handed a big bag of cash; for one thing any settlement over $25,000 requires public approval from the Board of Supervisors. You’d think that somewhere between the onset of this alleged forgery and the settlement being approved by the board — on second reading — the truth would likely be discovered by one of many workers across many departments involved in a large-scale settlement.

As it was.

Sherman has not returned our calls or texts. That, too, is understandable. So everyone is left to ponder the motivation for these brazen and illogical allegations. One thing that doesn’t appear to be an incentive for Sherman was financial gain — there is no apparent path toward self enrichment in this doomed scheme.

Perhaps Sherman felt she was, in some way, helping a worker she believed deserved a better deal. And perhaps, in a self-immolating move, she was drawing attention to DHR.

Well, that’s happening.

City workers — particularly city workers of color — have complained about the state of the Department of Human Resources and its leadership for years. Those complaints about an ill-run office where cases languished for ages without being investigated came before a so-called “rogue employee” somehow executed this purported long-running scheme without the knowledge of DHR leadership.

And now: Now people are paying attention.

The City Attorney’s office has confirmed it is undertaking an investigation in the wake of this bombshell — but would not disclose the scope. The Controller’s office will perform a policy review and DHR will audit itself.

It’s a safe bet DHR’s sharpest critics won’t be satisfied with that. Regardless, whatever body conducts an investigation of this department, make no mistake: It should be broad. And it should start at the top.

To wit: Multiple departmental HR professionals have spelled out to Mission Local that complaints they submitted to DHR on behalf of workers alleging discrimination were neutered to merely indicate discontent.

Says one: “There are experiences I have had with reports to [DHR] where, if it wasn’t the way the department wanted to receive it, it would be sent back to be changed.”

The changes described by this departmental HR professional were not trifling: “A complaint about not getting a job because of race or discrimination would be categorized as a ‘work assignment issue.’ And then not get addressed.”

In short: Someone alleging discrimination was recategorized as merely disgruntled — and then they were ignored. And HR professionals at different departments described similar circumstances.

“I can think of many times where we’d do an investigation, turn in a report, and they’d sit on it for a really long time and then send it back with instructions to edit it. If it’s leaning against the city, it would have to be rewritten and resubmitted to DHR before they accept it.”

When pressed if these edits would mitigate specific complaints regarding racial, sexual, or other forms of alleged discrimination, this HR professional replied “the way it’s set up is designed for that purpose.”

When we asked DHR about this, department policy chief Mawuli Tugbenyoh replied “the role of an EEO investigator is to be an objective third party, that neither represents the complainant, nor the respondent. The investigator reviews complaints of harassment or discrimination and makes a determination based on a narrow set of requirements as defined by state and federal law.”

Okay, then. But it’s worth contrasting the experiences of minorities reporting discrimination in their city jobs with the city’s own statistics on its treatment of racial minorities in city jobs.

Citywide, 11 percent of San Francisco employees are Black. But 25 percent of disciplinary actions are taken against Black workers. That’s not a good look, but the breakdown grows worse on a department-by-department basis.

Black workers compose 7 percent of Airport employees but receive 38 percent of the disciplinary actions;
Black workers compose 8 percent of Public Utilities Commission employees but receive 31 percent of the disciplinary actions;
Black workers compose 30 percent of Municipal Transportation Agency employees but receive 51 percent of the disciplinary actions.
“DHR is aware of the inequities that exist for some employees of color in the City workforce with respect to wages, discipline and corrective action, and promotional opportunities,” notes Tugbenyoh. “DHR is committed to working hard each day to correct these systemic inequities and advance equity, diversity and inclusion to create a workplace where all employees are valued, respected, and celebrated.”

And yet, Citywide HR professionals bemoaned a lack of consistent, centralized policy emanating from DHR — which, they say, is revealed by those wildly disparate discipline rates from department to department.

“DHR sets extremely vague policy,” says one. “You just can’t get a straight answer. Whenever I go to DHR, it becomes ‘Who’s on First?’”

All of which prompts a question along the lines of the one Juvenal posed nearly 2,000 years ago about watching the watchmen: Where do you go when you have an HR issue with HR?

In this city, that has long been a political question. HR professionals around San Francisco noted that Callahan — who will retire next month after 13 years atop DHR — is a seminal figure in the HR world, with allies and disciples seeded not only throughout this city but in agencies throughout the Bay Area.

So, that’s hardly an incentive to buck the system or complain about office deficiencies. Nor are the friend networks among high-level DHR employees and other high levels of city government.

As such, elements of the city calling for change at DHR were less than thrilled with Friday’s announcement that Employee Relations Director Carol Isen will become acting director when Callahan retires in October. The city’s Black Employee Alliance, only one day prior, sent out a mass email specifically urging Mayor London Breed to not give Isen — or other senior DHR leadership — this job.

It was an email from the Black Employees on Sept. 17 mentioning fraudulent settlement agreements — yes, plural — that prompted Callahan’s “Corruption at DHR … ” response one day later. Après ça: Le déluge.

Your humble narrator has since spoken to a decent swath of the Black Employee Alliance’s leadership. They repeatedly emphasized that more “fraudulent settlements” — yes, plural — will materialize.

They also emphasized that “the City and County in good faith cannot continue business as usual at this point.”

That seems resplendently clear. And yet, in this city, betting against the status quo is a great way to lose money.

But now: Now people are paying attention.

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