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New questions arise over firing
Hollister cut short Genice Rhodes-Reed’s 90-day opportunity to fix performance

By DANIEL STURM

This story may invoke irony. Imagine the city government gives you the job of securing social justice and equal opportunity employment for all city employees in the community. For years, efforts are praised. One day, however, you’ve come into conflict with some colleagues or your supervisor. A few weeks later you’re on the street – no labor review boards, no labor unions.
You, the EEO person, are a mere “at-will” employee.


Rhodes-Reed

Genice Rhodes-Reed had such an experience. For three years as director of Lansing’s Human Relations and Community Services Department she fought for better representation of minorities. Today, her name is included on a list of African-Americans who used to work in high-ranking positions for the city government but were let go under mysterious circumstances. She didn’t receive a severance package and her health insurance was terminated.

Rhodes-Reed’s personnel file, which City Pulse received through the Freedom of Information Act, raises further questions why Lansing Mayor David Hollister would force such a highly commended employee to resign. In March 2000 Rhodes-Reed had received all outstanding marks in 10 categories on her evaluation. On April 1, Hollister gave her unsatisfactory marks in five of the same performance ratings. The key points of the critique were: not working during regular business hours, not notifying her staff and the mayor’s office of her schedule, and not improving her relationship with staff.

After a glowing review in 2000, why just seven weeks after her second review was she forced to resign and escorted out of her office in an “hostile and humiliating manner,” as Rhodes-Reed described it? A performance improvement plan set up together with the job review on April 1 raises further questions: According to the personnel file the city intended to re-evaluate Rhodes-Reed’s improvement “after three months.” In case of a positive performance, the improvement plan would be extended through Sept 30. Instead, Rhodes-Reed was forced to resign just seven weeks after being evaluated.

This story lacks comment from the Hollister administration, despite efforts by City Pulse to seek it. In May, Mayor David Hollister banned city employees from speaking to City Pulse after stories appeared that were critical of his administration.

“That is not a good approach,” says James Dulebohn, a professor at MSU’s School of Labor and Industrial Relations, who teaches courses in human resource strategies. He believes it’s unusual to fire a person who’d received perfect performance reviews before. To terminate someone “because of one evaluation is not so good.” Giving the employee no indication that she is going to be dismissed and giving her just one single negative evaluation was a procedure Dulebohn said was “obviously unfair.”

Bob Egan, who’d resigned in protest from his position as chairman of the Human Relations Department’s Advisory Board after Rhodes-Reed’s dismissal, said, “Last week David Wiener [Hollister’s executive assistant] explained to me that the improvement plan was to go six months, and then a decision would be made. But they went seven weeks.” Egan said he stands by his earlier statement that the Hollister administration has difficulty working with African Americans.

Rhodes-Reed’s three predecessors, all of whom were African Americans, were fired or forced to resign. Another African American, Freddie Thomas, a special assistant to Hollister, was fired without public explanation in February. Hollister’s former chief of staff, Joe Graves Jr., was fired last year after he was charged with drunken driving.


Bob Egan

Rhodes-Reed is considering legal action against the administration, which might be an uphill battle. Dulebohn points out: “Even if it seems unfair, an employer is legally allowed to fire at-will employees for no reason.” Basically “at-will” means employees serve at the will of the employer – and can be fired without reason, with few exceptions. When Rhodes-Reed was appointed for her post of at the Human Resources Department in 1998, she agreed to an at-will post.

Added Bill Strong of the state Department of Consumer and Industry Services, “The fact that they put that plan in her performance review really doesn’t mean anything, because the city government could terminate her for any reason they wanted to.”

Dulebohn believes at-will contracts are more frequent in Southern states, where unions aren’t as strong. Dulebohn said that in northern states where unions are very strong (like Michigan, Ohio and Illinois), private companies and local governments have recently felt tempted to employ city officials with at-will contracts “to reduce costs,” such as health benefits and retirement pay, and create a more flexible situation, in which people could be hired or fired on demand. The labor expert called at-will employment a 19th century concept. “If that was the environment this woman was working in she might actually be better off leaving.”



 

 

 

 

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