A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Red Zone Culture: Long-awaited LRC
report lays bare research agency’s problems

By Rae Hodge
KyForward Frankfort reporter

The Kentucky Legislative Research Commission might not be a household name around dinner tables in the Commonwealth. But the unsung organization is the state government’s official lawmaking tool chest: It draft bills, conducts studies, distributes legislative news, keeps records and researches crucial policy questions.

This quietude is by design. While the LRC’s work is open to the public, the organization’s public manuals advise prudent retreat from commentary on the business of the legislature, and bind the 325 government employees in the 387-member body to the strictest display of nonpartisanship in their work aiding legislators from both parties.

Against this background of professional discretion, a study by the National Conference of State Legislatures has opened a forum to air complaints from legislative researchers. The report was commissioned in 2013 after three legislative staffers brought sexual harassment charges against former Rep. John Arnold, D-Sturgis, with the aim of measuring employee working conditions in the agency.

The study was conducted in the wake of former LRC Director Robert Sherman’s high-profile resignation after being accused of inappropriately handling the women’s complaints.

Using interviews with 115 LRC (partisan and nonpartisan) staff members and Kentucky state legislators, NCSL’s research team lays bare the research agency’s organizational problems in 75 pages. Concerns ranged from a lack of overall pay equity to managerial favoritism, from uneven workloads among committee staffers to a lack of performance evaluations.

Here are a few of the highlights of the report:

‣ Ineffective communication: A lack of performance feedback for employees who are seeking to build their careers kicks off the list of staff concerns.

The NCSL, in particular, notes the desire of many staffers to move ahead, saying “LRC staff are frustrated and often confused by personnel practices that seem arbitrary or inconsistently applied and that provide few clues about how to advance their professional careers.”

The report also finds an overall lack of meetings between LRC officials: “We learned that the committee staff administrators—a key group of middle managers at the LRC—had not met for five years until the interim director called them together”

‣ Transparency issues such as pay inequity were abundant in the report. The NCSL found that the current wage-setting structure in place now have little rhyme or reason, according to those appealing to it. And is responsible for severe pay inequity.

“Many long-tenured secretaries are paid less than employees only recently hired to these jobs,” it says. “This approach for setting pay sends a message to many long-term LRC secretaries that their skills, tenure and performance are less valuable than the skills, experience and potential performance of new hires.”

This scatter plot from the report highlights some of the inequity:

scatter plot

‣ Red Zone Culture is explained in the report as a workplace culture that fosters guardedness, hostility, low trust, sarcasm and undertones of threats or fear. The report says Red Zone Culture is commonly characterized by employees who have thoughts about their employer such as “they don’t care,” or “they have no right,” or “that’s stupid.”

The report finds that the LRC staff are in the red: “We believe that the LRC staff is approaching or already has developed a critical mass of employees with red zone attitudes and behaviors,” it says.

One staffer interviewed left them with the remark that “Members don’t have a clue about how mad staff are.”

‣ Sexual harassment–the topic that launched the $43,000 report–receives notably brief attention compared to other sections in the report, with the NCSL registering staff skepticism and advising more rigorous training protocols.

“NCSL team received comments that the online training is not taken seriously and that staff lack confidence in its efficacy,” reads the report. “While upper management can determine which employees do not complete the training via electronic record keeping, people are under the impression that there are no consequences for a failure to do so.“

The report was ready in April but LRC staff held off its release, saying it was still only a draft version. The report was made public Tuesday by LRC Interim Director Marsha Seiler after Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, joined House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, in calling for its release.

Stumbo, who has called for the report’s release since October 2014, issued a statement Tuesday, saying “I appreciate President Stivers’ cooperation on this matter and I look forward to working with him on some long-needed administrative changes in the LRC.”

Stivers did not respond to calls for comment at time of press, though he is scheduled to attend the coming Feb. 4 meeting of the LRC, where the topic is to be discussed.

Readers can find the full report, which includes suggested reform measures, by clicking here.

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