“The tension is widespread”: Office of Development staffers speak out about work environment
Employees spoke of racial tensions, intrusive supervision and an overall unhealthy workplace culture.
David Zheng, Senior Photographer
With Yale staff returning to in-person work, some employees in the Office of Development have quietly raised concerns about what they call an unhealthy workplace environment, claiming that racial tension and intrusive supervision make work life unpleasant and could impede efficiency as the University launches its $7 billion “For Humanity” fundraising campaign.
The employees also relayed concerns about the potential for breakthrough coronavirus infections. The News interviewed seven lower-ranking staffers, four of whom are Clerical and Technical workers, and three of whom hold Managerial & Professional positions. The employees are spread across four of the Office’s 23 units. All seven lower-ranking employees have been granted anonymity due to fear of professional retaliation or termination for speaking to reporters.
Eight high-ranking employees, including Joan O’Neill, vice president for alumni affairs and development, each expressed optimism about the return to in-person work. They noted their hopes for bonding with coworkers and their excitement to continue efforts for the capital campaign. Of the 15 Office of Development members interviewed, opinions on workplace culture were split along lines of rank.
“The tension is widespread,” one lower-ranking staff member wrote in an email to the News. “It adds up, in a thousand small ways and incidents. It is difficult to prove, because it is so individual, but get any three or four non-managerial employees together and soon the horror stories emerge.”
On Oct. 2, the 279-person Office of Development — which leads the University’s fundraising strategy and solicits gifts from alumni, corporations, foundations and parents — announced a new capital campaign. The campaign aims to raise $7 billion to support areas including the sciences, the performing arts and financial aid. The public launch of the capital campaign — a major fundraising endeavor that each University president oversees once during their tenure — coincided with the University-wide return to in-person work. On Oct. 4, many employees at the Office of Development returned to their workspaces for the first time in more than a year.
But behind the scenes, the six lower-ranking Office employees and one former employee — who now works elsewhere at Yale — said that their department’s workplace environment is unhealthy in multiple respects. Several described incidents of what they believe to be racial insensitivity. Others see the Office as a web of complex hierarchies, riddled with toxic workplace politics, a lack of transparency and an unreasonable degree of supervision. Some also expressed concerns about returning safely to in-person work. All anecdotes and accounts published in this story have been corroborated by at least two sources.
Still, senior development officials maintained that the office runs smoothly, and that morale is high. In response to the concerns raised by Office employees, O’Neill stressed that office culture is “very important” to her. She pointed to the Office’s internal promotion rate, which she said is higher than the University average, as an example of her team investing in its employees’ career development. O’Neill declined to share the promotion rate with the News, but said it indicates that staff members are inclined to stay at the Office.
“The positivity is palpable,” O’Neill said. “I look forward to continuing to strengthen our culture of teamwork in this new hybrid environment.”
Emilio Caballero, director of gift and records services, concurred. There is a “renewed energy” in the air as staff return to the office, he said.
Upon beginning work at the Office, staff are presented with a confidentiality agreement. After hearing that a reporter had reached out to staff members for this story during the summer, O’Neill sent out an email reminding employees of the agreement. Though staffers are not required to sign the contract, the expectation to maintain confidentiality is a specific job requirement, O’Neill said.
Office culture and politics
All seven lower-ranking employees interviewed by the News described a workplace environment pervaded by social tension. Six employees reported excessive managerial oversight, and several described incidents of favoritism and a high level of office politics.
According to a 2017 workplace survey obtained by the News, only a third of employees in one of the Office’s units agreed that their unit handles workplace conflicts constructively, compared to 55 percent of Yale employees overall. The same survey shows that only 36 percent of employees in the unit rate their office morale as “high,” as opposed to 55 percent of Yale employees as a whole.
But six high-ranking employees that O’Neill connected the News with — Caballero; Alison Cole, senior associate dean for development, external affairs and special projects; Mary Beth Congdon, university director for planned giving; Mathwon Howard, associate vice president for development; Jocelyn Kane, managing director of the Yale alumni fund and Dayle Matchett, deputy director of principal gifts — said they enjoy their work. They commended the intelligence and dedication of their colleagues and highlighted the collaborative nature of their workplace.
But some lower-ranking employees disagreed. One staff member said that many Yale alumni are generous gifters who are devoted to the University, allowing office leaders — particularly the high-ranking gift officers who establish and maintain relationships with key donors — to raise substantial amounts of money without having to work particularly hard.
“They spend a lot of their time on useless things like reviewing work from home arrangements or forming cliques and clubs and ostracizing others,” the staff member said. “It’s this very pernicious atmosphere that does not, I think, contribute at all to Yale’s success, donor engagement, alumni satisfaction or the University’s health.”
Lower-ranked staff are constantly watched over, according to five employees. Two employees recalled leaving their cubicles to use the restroom or attend a meeting and subsequently receiving an email asking where they were.
“Where are you?” reads one 2019 email from a supervisor to a subordinate who left her cubicle to attend a meeting. “Coat’s here but you’re not.”
By contrast, the six higher-ranking employees described their workplace atmosphere in a far more positive light. The Office’s culture is “very collegial, creative, and upbeat,” Matchett wrote in an email to the News.
Still, five employees recounted hearing various colleagues ridicule co-workers.
Four staff members described a clique in the Office dubbed the “Mean Girls,” a “really high school” group that travels in a pack, makes comments about other employees and ignores those outside their circle.
Two employees separately recounted the story of a senior staff member who attempted to streamline the donor pipeline process and increase the accountability of gift officers by raising their donation target threshold. According to one employee, the senior staff member was ostracized and quietly ridiculed by higher-ranking Office directors for having a southern accent and wearing vibrant flowery dresses. She eventually resigned from her position. The former employee confirmed that she chose to leave the Office, but did not respond to inquiries about the reasons behind her resignation.
On the other hand, six higher-ranking Office employees lavished praise on their co-workers. Cole said her team members are “kind, fun, smart and collaborative,” while Congdon said her colleagues are “talented and caring.” Kane said that her co-workers are “amazing,” adding that they have “a lot of fun” together.
But three staffers described being treated like “children.” One wrote that Office directors treat employees like “irresponsible children who must be closely monitored.” Another employee concurred, saying that they and their colleagues are seen as “naughty children.” Yet another staffer said that subordinates are viewed as “very young children” incapable of focusing on daily tasks.
“I know that a lot of it can seem like entitled whining,” one employee said. “It’s different … I’ve never seen anything like this where it’s so strict and it’s such a tension-filled atmosphere.”
According to Jeff Haden, a management expert and public speaker, good workplace leaders establish standards and guidelines for completing tasks, but they give employees the freedom to work however they operate best within those guidelines. Employee engagement and satisfaction are “largely based on autonomy and independence,” Haden said. He spoke generally, not in response to specific incidents within the Office of Development.
Five higher-ranking employees said that the Office maintains an excellent workplace environment. According to Caballero, Office leaders, from his direct supervisor to O’Neill, “encourage collaboration, are accessible and provide the necessary resources to perform our work.”
“[The Office of Development] is one of the most supportive environments I have worked in,” Caballero wrote in an email to the News. “All staff are valued and recognized as key contributors to the success of our fundraising efforts.”
Fundraising inefficiencies and a lack of transparency
But staffers said the office culture could interfere with fundraising, whether from unhappy employees or unoccupied managers.
In the 2020 fiscal year, Yale raised $567,000,051 in private donations, ranking seventh among private nonprofit institutions — behind Johns Hopkins, Stanford, Harvard, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
At 28.3 percent, Yale had the second lowest alumni giving rate in the Ivy League in 2019, according to a U.S. World and News Report ranking. One employee drew a direct link between the office culture and the low giving rate.
“We have people here trying to figure out how to solicit donations from Yale alumni, but they hold them in a weird kind of contempt,” the staffer said. “That can’t end well, that can’t end well at all.”
The staffer noted that there are very few Yale alumni in the workplace. The Office “simply will not hire Yale graduates,” the employee said.
Two other employees corroborated the Office’s dislike of Yalies. According to two staff members, an Office supervisor said during the 2016 Calhoun College renaming protests that Yale students are the “most privileged people on the planet” and should “just shut up.”
Despite these accounts of fundraising difficulties, recently released fundraising figures appear promising. With more than 30,000 alumni making commitments or gifts, O’Neill said that the 2021 fiscal year saw the highest amount of money received and pledged in the University’s history. Between July 2018 and Oct. 2, 2021 — a period before the public launch of the campaign — the Office raised over $3.5 billion, more than half of its $7 billion goal.
Still, four staff members criticized the lack of transparency with regard to fundraising goals. O’Neill said that the Office establishes overall fundraising goals each year, as well as smaller goals for individual units. According to two employees, the unit-specific goals are shared with staffers in the unit, but the overall goals are concealed from most.
“[The Office is] obsessed with secrecy,” one employee said. “We’re operating, we don’t know how we’re doing. It’s rather like trying to run a race for time but they don’t tell you how long it is. They only blow the whistle and tell you your time was great.”
Progress toward diversifying the Office’s racial makeup lags behind the University as a whole. More than 80 percent of the office’s employees are white, and six sources said it is noticeable when employees of color are treated differently.
According to a November 2019 workplace survey obtained by the News, across the University, 68 percent of staff members are white. Only five percent of staffers in the Office of Development are Black. The University average is 12 percent.
Six employees recounted episodes of what they see as racial discrimination and microaggressions in the workplace. Although the Office has launched Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives — which, according to O’Neill, have included discussion sessions, programs for staff and efforts to enhance workplace diversity — staffers said that these efforts have not led to change.
The 2017 workplace survey reveals that only 46 percent of employees in one of the Office’s units believed that the University upholds an inclusive environment in which diversity is valued, compared to 70 percent of Yale employees as a whole. The 2019 survey shows 85 percent of Corporate and Foundation Relations employees responding affirmatively to the same prompt.
O’Neill said workplace survey results are only shared internally and declined to provide them for the Office of Development as a whole.
On one occasion, a former staff member of color said managers repeatedly passed over him for a promotion, despite him and another source’s assertion of his superior abilities at using Hopper, a software program that the Office employs.
The former staff member also said that responsibilities not included in his job description were added without a raise in his pay. His dispute of this change was corroborated in emails the News reviewed.
His white colleagues were treated differently, he claimed, and they were allowed to attend meetings that were not open to him. An email reviewed by the News shows that the staff member was told there was no space in the room for him to attend a training session, but that there would be future offerings.
“You just don’t know [whether the disparate treatment is racially motivated], but when you’re the only African American person there, what do you assume?” he said.
A different employee — a Black woman — also reported being repeatedly left out of meetings with donors. Though she was often told that the exclusions are oversights and that she would be invited next time, the same situation has recurred “too many times to count,” she said.
O’Neill challenged the claim that staff members are excluded from meetings on the basis of race. Meeting participants are chosen based on the relevance of their roles and responsibilities, O’Neill explained.
University spokesperson Karen Peart declined to share whether there are human resources complaints about the Office of Development. Lisa Nolen, an HR generalist at the University, similarly declined to say whether there are complaints regarding discrimination and workplace culture at the Office.
Two staff members at Yale’s Office of Institutional Equity & Accessibility — Senior Director Valarie Stanley and Equity and Accessibility Support Specialist Jonathan Bailey — did not respond to multiple inquiries about whether they had received complaints regarding discrimination and workplace culture at the Office.
In addition to being excluded from meetings, two employees reported being called by the name of a Black colleague they did not resemble.
During one Black female staff member’s first few days on the job, a colleague expressed their fear of walking to the train station in New Haven. The staffer chimed in, sharing that she also rides the train. Their supervisor — a mid-level employee at the Office — responded by saying the staffer could “handle it” because she was from Harlem. Another staff member overheard this exchange and corroborated the details.
The supervisor wrote in an email to the News that they have no recollection of the conversation.
On another occasion, the staffer arrived at the office with her hair braided. Multiple people asked questions about her braids, one requested to touch her hair and during a work meeting she was asked to explain her braiding process. People looked at her like “some sort of museum exhibit,” she said.
For Christmas one year, her boss gave her a book about slavery, expressing that the gift would be well-suited for her, she said.
The employee’s supervisor saw it differently, expressing that the gift was not related to race. According to the staffer’s supervisor, she had read “Washington Black” by Esi Edugyan and “gave it to several people of different races.” She said she believed the staffer’s “expressed interest” and academic background in African-American history and literature meant she would enjoy it.
By contrast, the employee said her boss would also bring her to events and meetings, and introduce her as “the Black studies major.” It felt “like show and tell,” she said.
“I think that I was hired because I was young and Black and then those same characteristics basically were the reason why I never felt comfortable and another reason why I was treated the way I was,” she said.
In her email to the News, the supervisor wrote that the staffer often mentioned her ambitions of attending graduate school in African-American studies, so “I did on occasion introduce her to or describe Yale faculty who I thought she would be interested to know, to assist in her professional development.”
According to one staffer, it is difficult for employees to make formal complaints to the Office’s Human Resources department, but employees have reached out to HR.
According to Larry Gladney, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean of Diversity and Faculty Development and Professor of Physics, racial microaggressions can induce physically harmful stress on victims, who may feel the need to withdraw or hide their authentic self for fear of incurring further discrimination. Gladney spoke generally about the effects of microaggressions, but was not responding to specific incidents within the Office of Development.
He further explained that power differences make it difficult for employees to push back against microaggressions perpetrated by their supervisors.
Though Yale does not have guidelines specifically regarding microaggressions, the University’s policy against discrimination affirms its commitment to prevent and address harassment. The policy defines harassment as acts, whether severe or persistent, that have the “purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with [an] individual’s work” or that create an “intimidating or hostile environment.”
After police officers murdered George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, spurring protests throughout the summer of 2020, many departments in the Office established DEI task forces, holding regular meetings and discussions. The female staff member quoted above took part in the meetings for her unit.
At the first Corporate and Foundation Relations DEI task force meeting, employees took turns sharing their personal experiences in the workplace. According to Patricia Pedersen, an associate vice president at the Office and director of the Corporate and Foundation Relations division, the unit had several hours of “listening sessions” led by Dannika Avent, Associate Director of Learning and Development and DEI Liaison. The female staff member spoke up about the microaggressions she had experienced, sharing that she never felt comfortable in the office and did not feel that she belonged on the team. Her colleagues generally responded apologetically, she said.
But during the next meeting, Pedersen said that one employee had felt uncomfortable with the previous meeting’s format. As a result, she discontinued the practice of sharing personal anecdotes during DEI meetings. This factored into the female staff member’s decision to leave her unit, as it was “clear” the unit would not make progress toward diversity and inclusion if it was afraid of making people uncomfortable, she said.
According to three staffers in the unit, the ensuing meetings were not productive. Ideas were often shut down for being too controversial or impractical, two staff members said. Soon after, in the spring of 2021, the unit’s task force was shut down.
“The Office of Corporate & Foundation Relations task force is no longer active because staff members from various backgrounds and for many different reasons, were uncomfortable with the sessions/activities implemented by the task force,” Pedersen wrote in an email to the News.
According to O’Neill, the Office has shifted its resources toward a division-wide, five-year Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging strategic plan. The plan is led by Avent with assistance from an external DEI consultant and a small group of staff. The details of the plan will be published on the Belonging at Yale website, Avent told the News.
Concerns over returning to in-person work
Consistent with the University-wide return to campus guidelines, Office employees started working in-person for at least two days a week beginning Oct. 11. Though high-ranking Office staff expressed their enthusiasm for the return to campus, the revival of in-person work elicited pushback from six subordinate employees interviewed by the News.
The six employees cited their conviction that working from home is both more flexible and more productive. They also raised concerns about what they see as inadequate COVID-19 safety measures in the office.
O’Neill, however, shared her excitement about collaborative opportunities and face-to-face meetings with employees and donors. The six high-ranking members whom she connected with the News expressed similar sentiments.
“It’s been terrific to be back on campus and see many of my colleagues in-person again after a long hiatus,” Matchett wrote in an email to the News. “I especially appreciate the new work/flex schedule of on-campus two days a week as it allows for the best of both worlds — the opportunity to be together with my colleagues as well as the remote flexibility the other days of the week to do my more intensive writing and research-oriented work.”
Six staff members the News spoke to said they should be allowed to continue working from home as long as they complete their tasks. In addition to protection against breakthrough COVID-19 infections, the benefits of working virtually include more flexible hours and fewer distractions, staff said. In particular, three staff members argued that the success the Office saw during the past year demonstrates the efficacy of virtual work. One described what they saw as “contradictory messages” from the Office administration: that Yale is having one of its best fundraising years yet, but that no one can work effectively outside of the office.
Last spring, one staff member assembled an unofficial survey to gauge interest in work flexibility. According to the survey results, which were shared with the News, nearly 95 percent of the 66 respondents said that remote working was “very important” to them.
For some employees at the Office of Development, any time spent in the office is unwelcome.
“Things are very tense,” a staff member wrote in an email to the News. “No-one is happy. We see all of the bad things going on and are powerless to stop them. Our livelihoods are on the line if we speak or step out of turn.”
Staff reporter Isaac Yu contributed reporting.
Correction, Oct. 28: This article has been corrected to reflect that the 2017 workplace survey reflects a different unit than Corporations & Foundation Relations.