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Home / agencies / Cleaning house: DES director fires 72 for being ‘bullies,’ but did he go too far?

Cleaning house: DES director fires 72 for being ‘bullies,’ but did he go too far?

Department of Economic Security director Tim Jeffries stands outside his office, adorned with a "Director J :)" sign. (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)

Department of Economic Security director Tim Jeffries stands outside his office, adorned with a “Director J :)” sign. (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)

A new day has dawned at the Arizona Department of Economic Security.

So says the agency’s new director, Tim Jeffries, to anyone and everyone who will listen. At first, his listeners were the 7,653 employees at Arizona’s welfare agency, but that’s a captive audience – they work for Jeffries. Now Jeffries is taking his one-two punch of positivity and tough love to the public to tell the tale of what’s happened in the roughly 10 months he took the helm of the agency.

It’s a combo of uber-happy, uplifting messages from the boss, and a lot of “exits” – or what Jeffries calls it when employees are fired.

Jeffries has fired 72 people in the past 90 days alone, as first reported by the Phoenix New Times.

Those were bureaucrats and bad actors, Jeffries said in an Oct. 13 interview. And Jeffries has another name for them: bullies and liars.

All told, Jeffries has canned 168 employees since he was appointed department head in February, a pace of more than four firings a week. A spokeswoman for the agency could not say how many of those former employees were considered bullies and liars as well.

The “exits” should come as no surprise to DES employees, roughly 7,000 of whom Jeffries said he’s met with personally at a series of about 130 town hall meetings. It’s a face-to-face opportunity to meet with Jeffries, an eccentric, excitable man with no prior government experience other than a year served on the Arizona Commerce Authority board, Yet, he has a wealth of success in the private sector, a clear attraction for Gov. Doug Ducey, who considers the members of his Cabinet not agency directors, but CEOs.

If you work at DES and happened to miss all those town halls, no problem. It’s just as easy to get to know the new boss online, where more than three dozen videos, depicting town halls, meetings, and even a music video composed from a recent leadership summit, are posted on YouTube. Or maybe you’ve seen one of the private videos circulated in staff-wide emails, with subject lines promising details on “Director J’s ZERO TOLERANCE POLICY for bullies and liars.”

“I have introduced something very new into the agency, very new into this state. It’s called same-day exit,” Jeffries said in the accompanying private video, sent to staff on Sept. 5. “I have encountered egregious bullies in this agency. And if they’ve not been exited the same day, they’ve been exited within days.”

Jeffries said he has given three people a same-day exit so far.

“In obvious summary,” Jeffries wrote in the email sharing the video, “under the DES Value of Integrity, bullies will not be tolerated, and liars will not be tolerated either. So, bullies, beware! And, deceit, be gone!”

He later signed the email with a smile.

“Daily, my service. Always, my care. Director J. :-)”

A VISCERAL LOATHING

Jeffries isn’t shy about the changes he’s implementing at DES, and he brags about them in an earnest, uplifting way.

Few question his sincerity, given his life experiences and upbringing, which he readily acknowledges guides his vision for the agency.

“You’ve probably heard me state, and thousands of colleagues have heard me state it: I have a visceral loathing for bullies,” Jeffries said in an interview with the Arizona Capitol Times. “So much so my license plate on my personal car is Psalm 97. And the key verse is, ‘Let those who love the Lord hate evil.’”

There may be no greater evil than bullying in Jeffries’ eyes. And while Jeffries said his mother would prefer he wax poetic about his schooling, first at Santa Clara University and later Duke University, or his business success as the senior vice president of an international business optimization company, it’s not Jeffries’ success that guides him.

“What matters most,” he said, is his family history of domestic violence and abuse. Bullying, Jeffries said.

His father and two brothers were alcoholics and drug abusers.

His older brother, Michael, had a learning disability.

And bullying was an ever-present aspect of life, be it the physical and verbal abuse inflicted by his oft-drunk father or witnessing the abuse and bullying of his disabled older brother.

“I’ve often said throughout the decades that everything you need to know about business and life you learn on the grade school playground,” Jeffries said. “Wherever you assemble people, there’s playground stuff. And what does every playground have? Bullies. The ultimate cowards.”

“Those bullies preyed on my brother,” Jeffries later added. “My beloved big brother. Grade school, middle school, high school, to his final breath. They preyed on him.”

The last time bullies got to Michael was on Nov. 3, 1981, when he was homeless in Colorado Springs, Jeffries said. He was kidnapped, then killed – stabbed 65 times on a hillside outside of town before his captors crushed his skull with the heel of a boot.

The horrific experience eventually led to Jeffries’ work as a victims’ rights advocate. In 2005, that work connected him with longtime GOP operative Steve Twist, who in turn connected Jeffries with Ducey.

In 2007, Jeffries began advocating for “life means life” legislation, a truth in sentencing initiative that sought natural life sentences without possibility for parole. At least three times, Jeffries has gone back to Colorado to speak at parole hearings for his brother’s jailed murderer.

Jeffries has served in various capacities at organizations such as the National Justice Project, the National Organization for Victims Assistance, and recently, Arizona Voices for Crime Victims.

In 2009, he penned a letter to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee opposing the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, claiming her “well-intentioned yet misguided sympathy to criminals,” without appropriate deference to victims’ families, disqualified her for the high court.

When Ducey’s staff approached Jeffries about a possible position within the new governor’s Cabinet, they may have had other ideas for departments Jeffries could lead. But only one job interested him.

“As soon as I started talking about my love of the poor,” Jeffries said, snapping his fingers, “(Ducey) wasn’t talking about other agencies, because he understood.”

While life circumstances influenced his choice of a Cabinet position, Jeffries attributes his love of the poor to his Catholic faith. And he takes to heart the Catholic calling to charity. “Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek,” Jeffries said.

THE POPE’S MESSAGE

Now Jeffries says it’s time to take his message public. He invoked Pope Francis in his desire to “agitate for the poor.” Like the Pope, whose appeal has crossed religious and cultural boundaries, Jeffries sees his post at DES as an opportunity to give a voice to the poor.

“We can all agree Pope Francis is an interesting fellow, with a big job, with lots of media. And what do we see this man talking about the most? The poor, the suffering, the downtrodden, the disadvantaged,” Jeffries said. “And he’s not just talking about them with his beautiful words, rooted in love. He’s talking with his hands. So much so, he’s really fascinating to people well beyond the Catholic Church.

“And he’s so fascinating to people that, as they watch him, there’s increasing levels of discomfort. Because he’s challenging people to be more engaged than they are,” Jeffries continued. “And isn’t it about time more people are uncomfortable with the plight of the poor and the suffering? As I become more public, because I love the poor so much, and I speak so passionately about it, as I become more public, I will make people feel uncomfortable. Because too many people look away when they see poor.”

To take the Pope’s message to heart and better serve the poor, Jeffries said it was first necessary to get the agency in order.

That meant implementing his zero-tolerance policy and making other efforts to spread a positive message about the agency’s work. Jeffries takes a hands-on approach, boasting that he personally responds to any and all emails sent to him by DES employees. His personal responses include professions of love for the agency, both the work it does and the people he employs.

That also meant creating a better environment for those employees to work in, Jeffries said.

So, Jeffries started getting rid of the bullies, who he described as “bureaucrats interested in themselves and not the venture. Bureaucrats who are A-OK with the lethargy and mediocrity of this place. Bureaucrats who didn’t take strongly to heart that the poor in our lobbies need us to be great. They need us to be fantastic today, and tomorrow, but fantastic now, not years from now.”

“Good is the enemy of great,” Jeffries exclaimed.

DES would not provide access to personnel records, which are confidential. But broad examples of workplace bullying provided by Jeffries included instances of verbal abuse and, in at least one example, sexual harassment.

Some of those fired “would literally yell at other colleagues. Like, scream! If you read some of this stuff, you would go, ‘seriously?’ But it was tolerated,” Jeffries said. “Cheats were tolerated, liars were tolerated, bullies were tolerated.”

DES director fires 72Few letters of dismissal are sent to the State Personnel Board, which deals with complaints lodged by fired employees who are still covered under the old state employee merit system. But one filed under Jeffries on March 6 detailed the firing of an employee with the Family Assistance Administration for having sexual relationships with two people seeking benefits from DES, as well as sexually harassing coworkers.

Jeffries touted the arrest of a DES employee who was illegally using an Electronic Benefit Transaction card to obtain food stamp benefits. He made sure she was arrested, cuffed and escorted out of the office in the middle of the work day, “reintroducing the age old concept of public shame,” he said.

He’s formalized his zero-tolerance policy with a recent staff-wide email announcing Project Justice, a two-part effort that includes a whistleblower program – essentially a confidential email service.  And he has initiated an annual internal audit, a “values-based review” that will provide independent analysis of management “to further elevate our awesomeness,” Jeffries wrote on Sept. 22.

The response to the firings of bullies and liars has validated the approach, Jeffries said.

“More often than not, when we’ve released a multi-year, multi-decade bully, I get flooded with emails thanking me,” he said.

The lack of response from those fired has also been telling, Jeffries said.

Not one lawsuit has been filed against DES claiming wrongful termination, he said. And while 10 of the 72 recently fired were covered employees, a review of records with the state Personnel Board found no active complaints by dismissed employees within the past 90 days.

IDENTIFYING THE REAL BULLIES

Unless a fired employee takes Jeffries and the department to court, details of why he has fired various workers will remain unknown to the public, thanks to the confidentiality of personnel records.

Tom Rogers, an employment law attorney, commented on the firings. “That was the idea, to practically eliminate the merit system as it exists in Arizona, and replace it with a Chicago-style spoils system. You’re a political appointee at the whim of the presiding party, or in this case, the presiding director.”

Rogers led an Attorney General’s Office program in the 1970s and 1980s that assisted state agencies with firings and other disciplinary cases.

Without specifics, there’s no telling of the merits of Jeffries’ decisions to fire certain employees.

“That’s the regret for not having a merit system,” Rogers said. “It would make a big difference.”

That lack of detail has led to questions about some of the recent “exits” at DES. In response to a New Times report on the firings, some commentators suggested Jeffries himself has acted like the bully at the agency.

Others commented that enough research hasn’t been done to determine who the real bullies are.

MeJenta Spencer, who claimed she was one of Jeffries’ casualties, commented on the New Times website that she was a victim of bullying at DES, but by a bully who gamed the system and filed a complaint against her with human resources. As a result, she, not her bully, was fired. Spencer wrote a three-page letter to Jeffries explaining her situation, but heard nothing back from him, she wrote online.

Jeffries has responded prolifically to criticism and praise alike, and wrote online that Spencer’s letter was, as all cases are, thoroughly investigated.

“Ms. Spencer, your letter was received, researched, and addressed,” Jeffries wrote. “I wish you well in the future.”

Sen. Steve Farley said there may be nothing illegal about the way Jeffries has fired people – at-will employment certainly makes it easier for government officials to fire government employees. But there’s something untoward about attacking employees on their way out the door, the Tucson Democrat said.

“If the firings are A-OK, I don’t think you need to take it to the press and insult the people you’re firing,” Farley said. “It’s communication. It’s basic human resources. If you don’t want to be sued, you don’t go after the people you just terminated.”

Rep. Kate Brophy McGee said Jeffries has a different leadership style than some are accustomed to – “and this one is certainly different from the direction I would’ve gone as a leader” – and cautioned that not all aspects of the private sector blend so well with government business.

“There are good things that the private sector can bring to government, in my opinion, but there are good things that government does that must be recognized and allowed for when bringing that private sector vision to government,” the Phoenix Republican said. “There has to be room for good aspects of both to be operational.”

Without proper information, kept secret in confidential personnel records, it’s impossible to pass judgment on Jeffries, she said.

However, Brophy McGee is confident in Jeffries and sympathizes with the difficulty of trying to “re-culture a dysfunctional agency,” she said.

“I do not question his dedication to the agency, to the people that work there, and to the poor,” she said. “He really considers this his calling.”

At a town hall meeting on Oct. 22, Ducey was asked by one employee about media reports of the firings of bullies and liars. “I’m skeptical about what I read in the press,” Ducey replied, before shifting the focus to “the good things” happening at DES.

Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said the governor considers Jeffries a model for how agency directors should lead. But he declined to comment on specific details of Jeffries’ decisions to fire certain employees, or what constitutes workplace bullying, as did Ducey when asked what there was to be skeptical of concerning the reports.

“You’d have to talk to (Jeffries) about specifics on that, but the governor has been very clear on the need to reform state government,” Scarpinato said. “He didn’t bring in people from outside state government to do things the way they’ve always been done. If we could clone (Jeffries), we would.”

Jeffries acknowledges that he’s doing things differently. If firing bullies and liars is revolutionary or uncomfortable for some, so be it, he said.

“For reasons that baffle me, flummox me, government has tolerated these types of things,” Jeffries said. “Early on, in some of the early exits, I was told by any number of well-intended people, ‘Well, we have to do this and we have to do this and we have to do this.’ I said, this is an at-will state. Now, we’re going to investigate right and we’re going to document right, but they’re at will. So, all due respect to your perception that we have to jump through all these hoops just to do what’s right, we’re now in the business of just doing what’s right.”

As Ducey took pre-screened questions at the town hall meeting, he was interrupted by a homeless man, holding a tattered sleeping bag, who asked if he could ask the governor a question.

Jeffries shushed the man and asked him to wait before handing a microphone to former state Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, who this week was hired to a top position within the department. While Landrum Taylor and Ducey spoke, the man was quietly escorted out of the atrium at DES headquarters.

It would be the last question anyone got to ask of Ducey.

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