Audit: State Investigations Into Alleged Employee Misconduct Lack Paper Trail

Jun 26, 2017

The state of Vermont needs to do a better job justifying its rulings in cases of alleged employee misconduct, according to a pair of new reports from the office of State Auditor Doug Hoffer.

From sexual harassment on the job to the misuse of office resources, just about every employer has to deal with issues of worker misconduct. The State of Vermont is no different.

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But two new reports from the state auditor’s office says the Department of Human Resources often lacks documentation needed to demonstrate why state workers are disciplined or exonerated for alleged workplace transgressions.

Hoffer’s office scrutinized about 120 cases from six different government agencies, including the two largest - the Agency of Human Services and the Agency of Transportation.

Hoffer says the analysis showed that government agencies too often fail to document the rationale behind their decisions; in 10 cases, according to the report, “there was no evidence that either the case was resolved or that the disposition was carried out.”

Hoffer says it might not seem like a big deal to the average Vermonter.

“But [the state] is dealing with material and people and situations that can lead to litigation,” Hoffer says.

Hoffer says failures of recordkeeping make the state vulnerable to potentially avoidable legal costs.

In the last three years alone, the state of Vermont has paid government employees more than $3 million to not come to work. Those payments come when a state worker is on what’s known as “temporary relief from duty,” which is what happens when someone is being investigated for an alleged workplace transgression.

"People have to be well trained, they have to be well managed, and this is about making sure that the workplace is productive and effective." — State Auditor Doug Hoffer

It’s a testament to the volume of misconduct issues that the Department of Human Resources has to contend with every year. Hoffer says resolving those cases appropriately is a cornerstone of good governance.

“We don’t produce widgets. We provide services. And people have to be well trained, they have to be well managed, and this is about making sure that the workplace is productive and effective,” Hoffer says.

Hoffer says his office’s examination found that investigations can exceed the 60-day time limits called for in Department of Human Resources training manuals. And in instances where the state decided not to launch a formal investigation into alleged workplace misconduct, Hoffer says the state has failed to keep any records explaining why it chose not to investigate.

“Without documentation of all allegations and the actions taken by [government agencies] for each of the allegations, it was not possible to evaluate the appropriateness decisions not to investigate,” the report said.

Beth Fastiggi, commissioner of the Department of Human Resources, says Hoffer’s audit offers some useful recommendations.

“It points out areas where process improvements can be made in documentation, tracking and communication,” Fastiggi says.

"If you have total rigid standards, that could potentially lead to rushed investigations or poor decision-making, if strict time standards were imposed." — Commissioner of Human Resources Beth Fastiggi

But she says some of the critiques, like investigations running longer than goals set forth internally, are less fair.

“If you have total rigid standards, that could potentially lead to rushed investigations or poor decision-making, if strict time standards were imposed,” Fastiggi says.

Fastiggi says the department is considering some of Hoffer’s recommendations, most of which are related to improved record-keeping. But she indicated in a letter to Hoffer that she won’t be adopting all of his proposed fixes.

“We want to make sure that additional work we do isn’t adding to the bureaucracy, but is actually working to streamlining the process and make more efficient government,” Fastiggi says.

Hoffer says he was unimpressed by Fastiggi’s formal response to his report. In it, Fastiggi says the state “could benefit from some of the practices which were identified” in the auditor’s report. But she says the “current processes, all of which may be grieved, generally result in actions that are upheld by the Vermont Labor Relations Board and the Vermont courts, who have the subject matter expertise and legal authority to judge them.”

Hoffer says he thinks the Department of Human Resources should be setting the bar higher.

“You’re basically saying, ‘We don’t have to do any better because no one’s telling us to do any better,’” Hoffer says. “And that’s not the kind of message that people want to hear from state government.”

Fastiggi says “it is interesting that the auditor has the impression that the state is not interested in making process improvements,” and that overall, in her view, “the results of this audit are generally positive as they related to the overall process, but point out areas where process improvements can be made in communication, documentation and tracking."

Fastiggi emphasizes that the department does plan to use the audit results to improve.

“The Department of Human Resources will continue to work internally and with other departments to further improve in these areas,” Fastiggi says.