HR Expert: Employees could have grounds for suit against director/board
by Ron Aiken
For 54 minutes, embattled Richland County Recreation Commission executive director James Brown illegally threatened and verbally abused approximately 165 full-time employees of the agency required to attend the meeting he called in January, a secret recording obtained by Quorum reveals.
Referring to employees as animals and as people whom his children “deserved better” than to be around (including his son James Brown Jr., who was arrested and charged with seven separate drug-related counts in May and suspended from the agency without pay earlier this month), Brown also told employees that their problem was that he’d been treating them too well.
“I hear everybody complaining about how bad I am and how bad Richland County is, but ain’t nobody trying to leave here,” Brown said. “You know why you ain’t trying to leave? ‘Cause you overpaid. Like one of my bosses say, the biggest problem I got is I been too good to ya.
“They say I should’ve given you some rice and gravy, one piece of meat, a little bit of greens and some water. But see I tried to be nice. I gave you two pieces of meat, some rice and gravy, some beans, some cornbread and iced tea. You’ll no longer get that from me.”
Brown’s only bosses are the members of the Richland County Recreation Board of Commissioners, two of whom, chairwoman J. Marie Green and vice chair Barbara Mickens, he has been accused of bribing by a former employee who claims he was present during the exchanges of money.
In early April the board, led by Mickens and Green, ignored the results of an investigation into complaints of intimidation, retribution and sexual harassment by an outside attorney, labor lawyer Linda Edwards of Gignilliat Savitz & Bettis. After considering the report in executive session, the board emerged and took no action on the item discussed and instead voted 5-2 on a motion to “support” Brown.
The next day Brown fired two of his top lieutenants – Taurus Lewis and Kenya Bryant – who sources say Brown believed conspired in the investigation. Two more top employees, bond director Tony Cooper and finance director Andrea Fripp-James, subsequently have been retaliated against for their actions.
Cooper was terminated in April for reporting document shredding, he alleges in a subsequent lawsuit, and Fripp-James, whose sexual harassment lawsuit in March sparked the external investigation, was placed on paid administrative leave Friday. Brown, who is currently under investigation by the FBI, SLED and the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, took a voluntary leave of absence on July 1. Brown OK’d the administrative action against James, sources familiar with the decision tell Quorum.
“He’s not in the building, but he’s still here,” said a source within the agency who declined to reveal their name. “(HR division head) David (Stringer), (chief of staff) Tara Dickerson, they’re still taking his orders and reporting to him everything that’s happened.
“Even though he may be out, nothing has changed. Nothing. We’re still all in fear for our jobs. No one knows who’s next.”
Beyond name calling and insults, at the January meeting Brown threatened physical retaliation for those who spoke against him behind his back or wrote letters to elected officials.
“The only reason I can’t deal with you like I want to is because I got on this (name) tag,” Brown said. “If I didn’t have this tag on me and you ran up into me in the street somewhere, then I could be ‘Prick’. Oh yeah, I’m gonna let you know how I feel. Y’all tell people how you feel about me every day, now it’s my turn. It’s my turn.”
“I ain’t sparing the rod with nobody from here on out. Nobody. So play with me if you want.
“You done had your fun. Now most of you in here made it bad for everybody else. So now, when you break the rules, you gonna get severely punished. And am I looking forward to it? Yeah, I am. I really am.”
At the meeting Brown said he had named Tara Dickerson his chief of staff to avoid dealing with employees who don’t like him.
“Since it’s so difficult and it seem like every time you hear my voice I’m always doing something wrong, I’m always mistreating you, I’m nasty, I’m a bully, you’ll be going directly to Ms. Dickerson,” Brown said. “I have an old saying, and I want you to listen to it real careful. I have made some changes in my life. Please leave your name and number. If I don’t call you back, you are one of the changes. So understand what I just said. If you call me and I don’t call you back, you are one of the changes in my life in 2016.
“Don’t call me back. Don’t come drop by to see me. Nobody. I don’t want to see you. To all my division heads, if you got some information need to come out of your department to go to another department, you will take it. You will now remain in your office, in your area. That’s where you’ll remain.
“And Miss Dickerson, when you catch them out of their area, write them up or I’m gonna write you up. Y’all don’t want to be treated like adults. You want to be treated like kids, I’m gonna treat you like kids.”
An employee in the audience that day described the atmosphere.
“Unprofessional,” said a woman who also wished not to be identified because she still works at the commission. “It was demeaning, just pure bullying.
“I feel like he mixed personal issues with business issues. It was like nothing that I’ve ever dealt with from an employer. It was a first, and I’ve been working since I was in high school more than 20 years ago.
“And then you have the firings and retaliation, just blatant retaliation, that has come after … how is it allowed? I don’t know what could be put in place for the protection of employees, but it’s not there now because our HR department is a joke. They don’t look out for employees at all. David (Stringer) was there that whole meeting and he did nothing, just agreed, and he reports everything you say straight to Brown. That’s why nobody speaks up.”
She added that the reason people don’t leave isn’t because they’re treated too well, as Brown claimed. She says it’s because they can’t afford to.
“They’re not giving away jobs out there,” she said. “That’s not where our economy is.
“Most people work to pay their bills and take care of their family. People don’t work because they’re bored, it’s because they have families.
“I pray something is done soon, because when you see bad things happen to good people you know it could be you that’s next. It’s illegal what they do. No company should put their employees through that, but they get away with it.”
‘ONE OF THE WORST CASES THAT I HAVE EVER HEARD’
For this story, Quorum enlisted the aid of a 20-plus year human resources veteran with experience in the public and private sector handling leadership issues and the highest professional designation available in the field, Senior Professional in Human Resources.
Though she declined to be identified for this story because of her position in state government, she listened to the entire tape and in addition to offering her comments, she offered to counsel or represent in a grievance setting anyone who was present at that meeting at no charge due to the “incredible egregiousness of the circumstances and an obvious failure of the system to protect employees from an astonishingly hostile work environment.”
“In terms of human resources and leadership this is one of the worst cases that I have ever heard. Had I not heard the recording myself, it would be difficult to believe that it is real. This one meeting on its own, without any other mitigating circumstances, establishes a hostile work environment for staff.”
She said the term “hostile work environment” has a very specific definition according to U.S. labor law.
“A hostile work environment is defined as an environment that is hostile, intimating, and offensive to a reasonable person,” she said. “Mr. Brown’s comments could be used to very squarely define a hostile environment. I’m not sure that he could have handled the situation any worse.
“Mr. Brown makes threats throughout the mandatory staff meeting regarding disciplinary actions which do not appear to relate to any actual policies. It is obvious that he is retaliating against at least some staff for a perceived wrong. In the recording he revokes raises, denies overtime pay illegally by threatening to change staff work schedules without notice or consideration and threatens to fire people who don’t go along with him.
“The staff do not appear to have a voice as Mr. Brown says he will ‘deal with’ anyone who calls HR with a problem he decides is ‘gossiping’ or ‘pointing the finger.’ I’m not sure if the Board of Commissioners understands that they can be held legally liable for the work environment and culture that Mr. Brown has created.”
She concludes with a comment about Brown’s use of religion and profanity and his sexist introduction of his new chief of staff.
“His admission of the use of profanity to staff, coupled with his statements about praying for staff because ‘they are in need of prayer’ leaves me at a loss of comprehension of what he understands as his role as the leader of the organization,” she said. “I’m not sure that Mr. Brown understands when he introduces Ms. Dickerson to the audience by asking her to come to the front saying ‘Come on baby, say something nice,’ if that was the only statement he made the entire meeting it would be enough in most organizations to warrant termination of his employment.”
Monday evening Quorum provided members of the Richland County legislative delegation with copies of the transcription.
“I think what is abundantly clear is that an outside HR professional needs to come in and evaluate the HR department for re-training or reassignment,” Rep. Kirkman Finlay (R-Richland) said. “At the same time if I was the board or even (Richland) county council I’d seriously be considering legal counsel to prepare for potential legal liability.
“It certainly appears from this recording that there are many areas of serious concern for legitimate grievances and lawsuits on a larger scale that we first were led to believe. There’s an entire system broken here.”
A male employee who was at the meeting and wished to remain anonymous because he still works there summed up the feelings of many.
“This is recreation,” he said. “This is supposed to be a fun place to come to work, helping kids and seniors, running ballfields.
“Instead it’s a nightmare that won’t go away.”
Unless you’re Brown, who has received no disciplinary action to date from the board of commissioners, which meets again July 18.
“Two-thousand and sixteen is going to be a great year for me,” Brown told employees. “It’s going to be a great year.”
Reach Aiken at (803) 200-8809. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @QuorumColumbia.
READ IT: Recreation Meeting Transcription