Special Report: Is Virginia Beach a Harbor for Hostility?

Virginia Beach Mass Shooting

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) – Following the May 31 mass shooting in Virginia Beach that left 12 people dead, the flood gates opened on what has been called a toxic work environment within the city.

10 On Your Side’s Andy Fox went to Acting City Manager Tom Leahy to ask about the complaints from community groups, employees, independent investigators and others.

Leahy has the results of an extensive city-wide survey of employees and says it shows claims of a toxic work environment are not widespread.

“This concept or this narrative that people are trying to push out there that there is a toxic environment throughout the city isn’t supported by these numbers,” said Leahy.

It really does depend on who you ask. Several other employees who spoke with 10 On Your Side said they have experienced a toxic work environment.

10 On Your Side interviewed a person who worked with Keith Cox in Public Utilities on the second floor of Building 2. She does not want to be identified, so 10 On Your Side is referring to her as “Jane.”

“We pushed the cabinet up to the door, and we said Keith come in, and he said ‘No, I gotta make sure everybody is OK,'” Jane said.

That was the last time Jane saw Cox, who was killed that day.

“Every thing that happened before, that led up to what happened, and it absolutely could have been prevented,” Jane said.

The city says there is little evidence of that, but Jane blames the shooting, in part, on a toxic work environment she thinks impacted the shooter — and has impacted her.

“I’ve experienced bullying, disrespect, antagonizing, using your title to belittle and degrade — and it happens on a daily basis,” she said.

“She is telling the truth,” Virginia Beach employee Thom Colson said. “There have been some times when I walk by her cubicle and she is crying.”

Colson works in Public Utilities and came face-to-face with the shooter three times. He said the shooter spared Colson’s life.

Colson works with Jane, who suffered migraines causing ear aches and eye sensitivity to light. When a Human Resources liaison refused to help Jane, it was Colson who came to her aid.

“It literally took almost a year to get accommodations for that,” he said. “I got in touch [with management] and got threatened to be fired. I took it upon myself to use paper clips on a piece of cardboard, so the light wouldn’t go on the individual.”

“It was nit-picking, nit-picking, nit-picking,” Jane said. She said her supervisor was petty and called out Jane for parking in the front row of Building 2 so her daughter could easily find the car and pick it up after Jane reported to work. “It became this big ugly thing in the office.”

Jane also claims the supervisor would not call her by her first name because she didn’t pronounce it correctly. Jane told her supervisor she would tell them how to say her name, but the supervisor refused to say it the proper way, instead saying they would only use her last name. 

However, about two weeks before the May 31 shooting, the supervisor suddenly left. The city confirmed they left, but would not state why. 

“In a city this large and departments this large, there are pockets of toxicity,” City Auditor Lyndon Remias said. Remias told WAVY News 10 he would have a pulse on a wide spread toxic work place. “There are bad employees or bad supervisors. It is the law of large numbers.”

There are 7,400 people who work for the city.

“I did not work on the second floor, but I know people were unhappy down there,” said Rebecca Lear, who has worked for the City of Virginia Beach for 25 years, and is in the Public Works department on the third floor of Building 2. She understands how Jane feels about toxic work environments, but for her, she likes working for the city.

“We have compassionate, professional, leadership. We have an open door policy,” she said. No one came to work on the third flood dreading coming into the environment.”

Lear and Jane are two of the 3,441 city employees who completed the 2019 Quality of Work Life Survey in February.  

They answered questions like:

“My immediate supervisor encourages effective teamwork in our department.” Overall, 81 percent answered “agree” or “strongly agree.”

“That’s the point or concept. I am trying to make the point the narrative people are trying to push out there that there is a toxic environment throughout the city isn’t supported by these numbers,” said Leahy, the acting Virginia Beach city manager.

These are the average scores that Leahy believes do not support the toxic work environment claims.

The six categories in the survey, including “work environment,” show employees who agree or strongly agree with positive statements typically are in the 60 percent and 70 percent ranges. Those that disagree or strongly disagree are very low.

Let’s look at the work environment: About 67 percent is positive feedback. 26 percent is neutral with no strong feelings one way or the other. Only 6.9 percent of employees disagree or strongly disagree, saying the work environment is negative.

Leahy pointed out one question on the survey: “I would recommend Virginia Beach as a good place to work.”

“66 percent agree or strongly agree which is two-thirds, and only 13 percent of the employees said it wasn’t,” Leahy said.

10 On Your Side asked Leahy — if all that is true — why have employees voiced unhappiness during the independent investigation into the shooting and employee listening sessions.

“Well the survey doesn’t support many are unhappy,” Leahy said. “I will admit in any group of employees, some will be unhappy.”

If the survey shows such overwhelming support for the city, why is there so much discussion about toxic work environments? Leahy also said he doesn’t think the toxic work environment conversations represent a significant core of employees.

“… Out of 3,000 comments in the survey, the word ‘toxic’ only occurred 10 times and only once from the departments in Building 2,” he said.

The two sides may not agree about the state of the Virginia Beach work environment, but the tragedy has left open wounds.

Following the day he came face-to-face with the shooter, Colson got a new tattoo.

“The individuals we lost, I don’t ever want to forget,” he said. “This is a reminder for me of what we lost.”

His tattoo, which features a blue heart, reads: “Survivor 5/31/19.”

On Wednesday, the independent firm investigating the tragedy will share its findings.

Tune in tonight to WAVY News 10 for Andy Fox’s full special report “Is Virginia Beach a Harbor for Hostility?” at 6 p.m.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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