DOC employees surveyed on trust and commitment

DOVER — In search of a test subject for his dissertation on “servant leadership,” Wilmington University doctoral candidate Rick Brewer was turned down by companies like Southwest Airlines, Chick-fil-A, Wawa and Lowes. But, after a chance meeting with Delaware Department of Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps in July of 2017, he wound up snagging an even more intriguing test subject than he’d bargained for.

“All the companies I tried first — well known for being servant leadership-type organizations — turned me down,” said Mr. Brewer, a 30-year veteran in law enforcement and leadership training with the US Air Force. “One day, on a lunch break at the Subway on base, I ran into Perry Phelps, who I’d known for years from living in the same development and having him as an adjunct professor for my master’s program at Wilmington University.”

Almost two years of approvals and negotiations later, Mr. Brewer has distributed an anonymous 60-question survey to the DOCs 2,200-strong staff to examine its commitment to and trust in the organization and leadership.

Focusing in on servant leadership — an employee-centric philosophy — Mr. Brewer believes that data culled during his dissertation research will be beneficial for the DOC itself.

“It’ll be sort of a climate assessment,” he said. “I’ll measure what the employee’s perceptions of their leaders are; do they trust their leadership and what type of commitment do they have to the organization? I think the DOC will get a snapshot of what their culture is and a pulse on how the employees feel. It’ll be especially useful when we break it up to the certain types of commitment: Do they love their work? Do they feel a duty toward it? Or do they feel a need to stay with it because they have time invested and are nearing retirement?”

In addition to the completed research paper eventually being published on ProQuest — a research platform — Mr. Brewer also agreed to brief DOC leadership on his findings.

Acting in an advising capacity, Wilmington University professor Dr. Michael Czarkowski said the data may help guide policy changes.
“Typically what we’re doing with dissertations is looking at particular issues or problems and trying to come up with some type of broad-based resolution to them,” he said. “In this particular case, hopefully what will happen is this will give the DOC some additional information that they can then decide what they can do with. They may follow up with some changes or possibly further study — it’s up to them.”

Specifically, training and recruitment strategies for the chronically understaffed department may get a boost, notes Mr. Brewer.

“I think it’ll help them down the road with recruitment, retention and possibly leadership development,” he said. “The DOC is already doing some added training with Wilmington University for both their officers, but these results may highlight some areas where tweaks need to be made.”

Of the roughly 1,900 correctional officers and 300 probation officers being surveyed, Mr. Brewer hopes for at least 450 responses to get an adequate “sample size.”

The DOC has been frequently criticized for its culture, staffing levels and overtimes practices in recent years — particularly in the wake of the 2017 riot at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center that left correctional officer Steven Floyd dead and several other staff members brutally beaten or otherwise traumatized. After the incident, Gov. John Carney commissioned an independent review team led by former Family Court Judge William Chapman Jr. and former U.S. attorney Charles Oberly III to examine conditions and make recommendations to address them.

The team produced a 159-page report which provided 41 key recommendations on addressing the DOC’s systemic ills. There were entire chapters devoted to the topics of culture and leadership, officer training and communication.

The issues faced by the department make it an excellent candidate to be studied, notes Mr. Brewer.

“What’s great about working with the DOC is that historically they’re a paramilitary organization, like most other law enforcement agencies,” he said. “Servant leadership isn’t usually found in places like this because they tend to be more top-down or autocratic on the whole. I read the independent review and there were a lot of leadership and communication issues mentioned. When you read the literature though, these problems are very common across a lot of DOCs in the country — looking into their issues is like looking into a mirror. So I think there’s a lot to be gained coming at it from a servant leadership perspective.”

For their part, DOC leadership is looking forward to examining the results of the research said agency spokeswoman Jayme Gravell.
Content of the survey.

Correctional Officer Association of Delaware president Geoff Klopp, who’s taken the survey himself, says the questions will likely lead to some “very interesting” data.

“It’s anonymous, so the officers can answer truthfully without being worried about any repercussions,” he said. “I think it may help highlight some of the issues we know we’ve had for a long time and maybe even give the DOC some new ideas on how to manage things. I just hope that the General Assembly’s corrections committees also have a chance to take a good look at it and take it seriously.”

Written as a series of statements to agree or disagree with, the survey is estimated to take 10-15 minutes to complete. It was distributed to DOC staff via email a few weeks ago with today being the deadline to submit.

Many of the statements in the survey like “my supervisor puts my best interests ahead of his/her own” or “my supervisor goes above and beyond the call of duty to meet my needs” read like a fairly standard employee satisfaction survey. But, some statements like “I would be very happy to spend the rest of my career with this organization,” “It would be very hard for me to leave my organization right now, even if I wanted to” and “I do not feel any obligation to remain with my current employer” may provide much more crucial information on the vigor of the agency’s employees.

The particularly poignant statement “employees generally believe that management provide honest answers” may even shed light on DOC officers’ level of trust in the agency.

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