Making morale a priority

January 06, 1995

In touting a "gainsharing" program that rewards government employees for highly efficient work, Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger stresses the importance of offices where morale is a top priority. While the merits of this idea still await fuller discussion, Mr. Ruppersberger has a more immediate morale problem on his hands in the county's Building Services Division.

These long-simmering difficulties were fully exposed last November when a county cabinetmaker set fire to his workplace before shooting himself to death. The man suffered from emotional difficulties and alcoholism, but his colleagues maintain his mental state was exacerbated by heavy-handed and sometimes cruel management on the part of division supervisors.

Baltimore County officials have argued that only a relative handful of government workers register such complaints. Some objections -- such as the one by maintenance employees who claim that they have been assigned to the county Detention Center as a form of punishment -- are dismissed out of hand by certain officials in Towson. Yet John R. Miller, the head of the department that oversees building services, admits a survey of the division's 200 employees last summer revealed that 80 percent of them had low morale.

In addition, Detention Center administrator James Dean confirms that maintenance assignments at the jail have been arranged to punish workers. These inconsistent explanations by county officials indicate there is more going on than the grousing of a few discontented janitors and mechanics.

Mr. Miller is on the right track when he says the county should change its practice of promoting workers to management without first training them for their new roles. Building services chief B. Wayne Eicholtz, a former carpenter, was promoted in just that manner. The evidence suggests he should have been better prepared by his superiors before they put him in charge of the operation. And if Mr. Eicholtz's performance continues to be found lacking after the county's recent efforts to improve management-employee relations in the division, he should be removed from his post.

The county executive has requested a performance audit of the division, but it probably won't be completed for months. Mr. Ruppersberger ought to take quicker action to ensure that an apparently bad situation inside the county's Building Services Division does not get worse.

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