Employee Survey Scorches Management
by Ted Sickinger
It may come as little surprise that employees at the Bonneville Power Administration suffer from low morale, considering the institutional criticism the Portland-based federal power marketing agency has endured since a hiring scandal became public last year.
But BPA's managers were apparently chastened by the thorough spanking they received last week in an employee survey.
BPA declined to release to The Oregonian a copy of the bi-annual employee engagement survey conducted by Gallup Inc., citing copyright concerns. The newspaper has, however, reviewed survey results, including what amounts to a bottom-up review of some 200 individual managers, as well as the overall findings presented to employees at a Friday meeting.
Employee perceptions were bad across the board -- on leadership, on accountability, on change management and inclusiveness. The agency not only saw its results on the survey decline significantly since 2012, but its overall score put it near the bottom of the league tables, worse than 78 percent of the organizations that Gallup surveyed for 2014.
The survey suggested that BPA and executives and managers are out of touch, and that a vast gulf exists between their perceptions and experiences at Bonneville and those of front line employees. It singled out the existence of a "bullying culture" at Bonneville and indicated that employees don't trust managers to be fair or do the right thing if they receive a discrimination complaint.
After previewing the results last week, Deputy Administrator Greg Delwiche e-mailed managers to prepare them, calling the findings "serious" and "sobering".
"They indicate that our employees overall are struggling" he wrote. "I acknowledge that it may be difficult to hear these results, but I am very glad you and employees voiced your opinions and we now know specific areas that we need to work on."
And after reviewing the results and taking feedback from employees at a meeting Friday, Administrator Elliot Mainzer sent out an all employee email. He said he was still pondering what the results meant about BPA's culture, but promised a specific action plan to address the findings, particularly bullying.
Gallup surveyed more than 2,100 BPA employees, asking them 12 questions to measure their expectations, ability to do quality work, development opportunities, recognition and respect from management. It then followed up with focus groups for 150 employees.
The polling company says the results of its employee engagement survey, which it has administered to 25 million employees around the globe, provide the best measure of an organization's performance outcomes, and reveal broad strengths and weaknesses that can be used to undertake change.
The survey and focus groups turned up a number of broad themes at BPA: low and declining scores on measures of accountability; low perceived levels of inclusiveness; a lack of open communications and leadership presence; a lack of connection with BPA's mission, and the fear of bullying and speaking up.
Engagement scores were low in almost every corner of the BPA organization, but particularly so in information technology, internal business services (which manages human resources and other administrative functions) and the agency's transmission organization.
The consistently lowest manager engagement scores (the composite scores of employees who report to them) came in BPA's Transmission Field Services Group, which builds, operates and maintains much of the Pacific Northwest's electrical grid. The vice president in charge of that group had among the lowest survey scores for executives.
BPA also generated low and declining scores on the questions that Gallup says correlate most closely to safety - a key area of concern for the Transmission group and one where previous audits and employee surveys have found major issues at Bonneville.
Doug Johnson, a BPA spokesman, said the manager engagement scores would be used to develop action plans for the agency, but would only become part of performance evaluations for executives.
In his email to employees Friday afternoon, Mainzer said the executive team was working to determine what next steps are necessary to improve morale, engagement and BPA's work environment.
He said he was immediately struck by "the significant gap" in perceptions between senior leadership, and managers and employees, which he believes suggests a communication breakdown, both from top to bottom and in feedback loops to managers and executives.
"We appear to have a lot of work to do on communication at BPA, and I am very interested in exploring pragmatic improvements."
He also said he was struck by the ongoing sense of a "bullying" culture at BPA, conveyed in focus groups conducted by Gallup. Mainzer said he was going to spend a significant amount of time with leadership, both to understand the issue and "to help bring it to a prompt -- and permanent -- end.
"At BPA," he said, "we treat each other with respect. Period."
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