Fewer than a third of attorneys and staff in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division who participated in a workplace survey this year reported feeling “satisfied” with the policies and practices of senior DOJ leadership, according to a report obtained by BuzzFeed News.
A high percentage of Civil Rights Division employees reported feeling satisfied with their work, their immediate supervisors, and their colleagues, but the positive responses dropped when it came to senior leadership. Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Justice Department has changed course on a number of civil rights issues, including arguing against federal protections for gay workers and scaling back oversight of local police departments.
In response to the question, “How satisfied are you with the policies and practices of your senior leaders," 31.9% of Civil Rights Division employees responded favorably — marking that they were either very satisfied or satisfied — compared with a 49% positive response across the Justice Department. Of the remaining Civil Rights Division respondents, 29.1% had a neutral response and 39% had a negative response, either that they were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied.
For the prompt, “I have a high level of respect for my organization's senior leaders,” 39.9% of Civil Rights Division employees responded that they strongly agreed or agreed with the statement — 26.9% had a neutral response and 33.3% gave a negative response — compared with a 59.3% favorable department-wide response.
Each year, the Office of Personnel Management surveys the entire federal workforce. It's not mandatory — of the more than 1 million employees who received the survey, 45.5% responded. This year’s survey was launched in two waves in May, and each survey had a six-week administration period, so the results reflect how employees were feeling roughly halfway through the Trump administration’s first year.
Government-wide and agencywide results are published on OPM’s website and by agencies, but subagency reports typically are not released online. BuzzFeed News obtained the report from a source who was forwarded a copy of the email that John Gore, the acting head of the Civil Rights Division, sent to employees with the survey results on Dec. 8.
Asked about the survey, Justice Department spokesman Devin O’Malley provided the following statement to BuzzFeed News: “Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Civil Rights Division has created an initiative to root out sexual harassment in federal housing systems, obtained convictions in hate crimes and police-abuse cases, started the review of potential discriminatory admissions practices at a major university, among many other achievements. The Attorney General is proud of what the women and men of the Division have accomplished this year and looks forward to what they will continue to accomplish in the coming months under both the current and future leadership.”
The Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey administered by OPM features a series of questions and prompts aimed at gauging how federal government employees feel about their department, management, and the work that they do.
Full reports on the Civil Rights Division’s survey responses in previous years aren’t publicly available, but according to the most recent Justice Department–wide survey results available on the department’s website from 2015, which include some breakdowns by division, the favorable marks for top leadership appear lower this year.
In 2015, DOJ combined the results of five questions about leadership and calculated the average favorable response for a category called “Leaders Lead.” It included three questions about how employees felt about senior leadership and two questions about immediate supervisors. In 2015, the average favorable score for “Leaders Lead” came out to about 58%. The average of the positive responses for those same five questions in 2017 came out to 52%.
The surveys don’t represent the views of the entire Civil Rights Division or the Justice Department. There are about 600 full-time employees in the Civil Rights Division, according to the department's latest budget request. At most, 280 people from the division responded to questions in this year’s survey. For some questions, the response rate was much lower.
Still, the survey offers a snapshot of how Justice Department attorneys and staff felt about the direction and management of the department this year. The majority of people who responded from the Civil Rights Division reported having a professional degree such as a law degree, an indication that they’re lawyers.
In some areas, attorneys and employees in the Civil Rights Division reported feeling better about their jobs and how their office was performing compared to the rest of the Justice Department. In response to the prompt, ”My work gives me a feeling of personal accomplishment,” 81.6% of civil rights employees responded positively, compared with 71.7% department-wide. The DOJ-wide response was down from 73.8% in 2016, according to OPM’s agency breakdown for that year.
In response to the question, “How would you rate the overall quality of work done by your work unit,” 92.6% of Civil Rights Division employees responded positively, compared to 83.1% department-wide. The department-wide response was about the same in 2016.
The lowest favorable responses within the Civil Rights Division were in response to prompts about senior leadership.
Across the Justice Department, positive responses slightly dropped this year in response to a few prompts that captured some of the concerns that Democrats and liberal advocacy groups have expressed about the Justice Department under Sessions. For instance, for the prompt, "My work unit is able to recruit people with the right skills," the positive responses dropped from 46.7% in 2016 to 44.2% this year. This year, 25.9% of DOJ respondents had a neutral response to the prompt and 29.9% disagreed with the statement; in 2016, 26% of respondents had a neutral response and 27.2% had a negative response.
For the prompt, “Arbitrary action, personal favoritism and coercion for partisan political purposes are not tolerated,” positive responses dropped from 52.3% to 50.4%. This year, 22% of respondents across the department had a neutral response and 27.6% disagreed with the statement; in 2016, 20.8% of respondents had a neutral response and 26.9% had a negative response.
The Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that analyzes the results of three questions from OPM’s annual survey to come up with a “Best Places to Work” index, decreased the Justice Department’s rating by two points this year. The organization also noted a decline in positive responses from the Environment and Natural Resources Division and the Civil Division; it didn’t have data yet for other litigating components of the department, including the Civil Rights Division.
According to a copy of the 2017 OPM survey results for the Environment and Natural Resources Division — obtained by the government transparency group AltGov2 through a Freedom of Information Act request and made available online — employees there who responded had more favorable opinions of senior leadership than in the Civil Rights Division.
In response to the question, “How satisfied are you with the policies and practices of your senior leaders,” ENRD employees had a 43.4% favorable response — 27.3% had a neutral response and 29.4% had a negative response — compared to the 31.9% positive response in the Civil Rights Division.
And in response to the prompt, “I have a high level of respect for my organization’s senior leaders,” ENRD employees had a 51.1% favorable response, compared to the 39.9% positive response from the civil rights unit. In the environment and natural resources unit, 23.3% of respondents had a neutral response and 25.6% had a negative response to the prompt.
The Civil Rights Division has been led this year by two acting heads — Thomas Wheeler, an Indiana lawyer with ties to Vice President Mike Pence, and now Gore, who previously worked at the law firm Jones Day, a top feeder for legal jobs in the Trump administration.
Trump in June nominated Eric Dreiband, also a Jones Day attorney, to lead the division. Civil rights groups have objected to Dreiband, a former general counsel of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, citing his record defending companies facing discrimination claims and his positions on issues such as employers’ ability to check job applicants’ criminal history — he has opposed restrictions — and federal protections against wage discrimination — he opposed the Fair Pay Act in 2009.
Dreiband was voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in September, but he hasn’t had a vote in the full Senate yet.
Zoe Tillman is a legal reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Zoe Tillman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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