Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

Human Resource Office Locked in Battle Mode ; Workforce Management Staff Alleges Intimidation, Retaliation

Newspaper article The Topeka Capital-Journal

Human Resource Office Locked in Battle Mode ; Workforce Management Staff Alleges Intimidation, Retaliation

Article excerpt

Retired Col. Robert Bloomquist served 32 years in the military but was unprepared for combative, retaliatory leadership encountered at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' human resources office in downtown Topeka.

He said unprofessional conduct was a hallmark of administrators controlling the office of Workforce Management, which the VA headquartered in Topeka to provide guidance on employee relations and personnel development at centers working directly with veterans across the United States.

"I have never witnessed such a level of turnover of highly qualified people, hostility and disregard for the welfare of the employees," said Bloomquist, who was dismissed from Workforce Management after raising questions internally about VA management decisions.

In the VA organization, Workforce Management is within the Central Business Office of the Veterans Health Administration, which falls under the massive VA umbrella. Workforce Management serves thousands of VA employees but is among the agency's lesser-known divisions.

A series of federal employment complaints and legal actions have been initiated against officials at the office located in Townsite Plaza, current and former employees said. They said staff who fell out of favor with upper management were subjected to humiliating criticism and retaliation by supervisors.

One employee involved in a dispute with VA said Workforce Management's director, Joyce Deters, illegally altered his government employment records.

In more than two dozen interviews, present and former staff members said more than 100 employees in the Topeka office struggled to perform duties in a pressure-cooker system fueled by fear of management. Singular words offered to characterize the job environment included "paranoid," "belittling," "dread," "isolated," "despotic," "micromanaged," "hostile," "degrading," "hell" and "quagmire."

'Set the tone'

Bloomquist, a member of the Kansas National Guard's officer training Hall of Fame, said strife at Workforce Management appeared to be a low priority to the agency's senior executives, Office of Resolution Management and Office of Inspector General.

"They set the tone for the culture within these critical organizations that involve veterans' care," he said of divisions with an oversight role of Workforce Management. "The action, or inaction, of leaders above this organization appear to condone this culture."

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, echoed comments of several Kansas congressional delegation members by expressing frustration with problems at the VA fomented by individuals more invested in protecting personal careers than reforms for benefit of veterans.

Moran, who has visited more than 30 VA facilities while in public office, said he found obtaining prompt, complete responses from the agency to be a rarity.

"If they're unwilling to respond to me, I have little doubt that what an employee says is not responded to or no action is taken," the senator said. "The VA, in particular, seems to have become a place where there's just fear."

He said the volume of VA employees requesting assistance from House and Senate members who also request anonymity because of possible retribution from bosses was on the rise.

Deters and Raney

Operations at Workforce Management, which isn't linked to the Topeka Colmery-O'Neil VA Medical Center, escaped public scrutiny amid this year's national scandal regarding patient care at medical facilities.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned, and President Barack Obama signed a $16 billion bill designed to upgrade the veterans' health system by hiring providers to shorten wait times, making it easier to fire officials for poor performance and allowing veterans to seek care from other providers if they can't obtain prompt attention. …

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