He made sexual comments and favored ‘cute’ women. How can SLO County prevent hires like this?

Did you know San Luis Obispo County provides 700 public services?

San Luis Obispo County government employs more than 2,800 people who provide more than 700 public services, including law enforcement, public works, transportation and health care.
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San Luis Obispo County government employs more than 2,800 people who provide more than 700 public services, including law enforcement, public works, transportation and health care.

It’s painfully obvious that former county Public Works Director Daniel “Colt” Esenwein was the epitome of a toxic boss. Had he remained, he would have ruined department morale and driven away good employees.

Written employee complaints released by San Luis Obispo County in response to public record requests are heavily redacted, but still paint a picture of an awful work environment.

“Feedback was staff is very scared of him,” is one comment.

Here’s a recap of some of his behavior:

Esenwein — who resigned on May 5 — showed favoritism to “cute” young women employees; gave them unwanted attention; and “ignore(d) everyone else.”

He “interrogated and humiliated” employees; was “loud and obnoxious and .... gets in people’s personal space”; cursed and made inappropriate sexual comments.

Employees had an “office code” to alert one another when he walked into the room.

In other words, we aren’t talking about a few awkward comments. This was a pattern of egregious behavior that one county official summed up as “conduct unbecoming.”

San Luis Obispo County deserves credit for responding to employee complaints and making it clear that such behavior won’t be tolerated.

The county also was proactive in providing training for Esenwein, as it does for all employees. Last May, he completed Harassment and Discrimination Prevention training and Harassment Prevention Training for Supervisors.

It appears the county did everything right.

But it’s hard not to wonder: Were there red flags that county administration missed in the hiring process, or in the first couple of months of Esenwein’s employment?

Inappropriate conduct of this magnitude doesn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere.; there was likely a history.

One of the complaints appears to suggest as much: Esenwein’s “unusual and difficult personality was known there,” it states, though because of the redactions, it’s not clear where “there” is.

Before he became public works director in San Luis Obispo County in April 2018, Esenwein was assistant director of public works in Santa Cruz County and had served as deputy director of public works for Stanislaus County. He also served in the Navy and graduated from Cal Poly in engineering.

In addition to his outstanding resume, he made a good impression on top-ranking professionals he came in contact with, including SLO County Administrative Officer Wade Horton, and with panelists who interviewed him in San Luis Obispo, including the county Board of Supervisors.

So here’s the question: How does an organization — in this case, San Luis Obispo County — avoid hiring someone with a toxic management style?

It’s a question that private companies have been asking; a much-quoted Harvard Business School report concluded that it’s better to avoid hiring a toxic employee than to hire a superstar, due to the amount of harm a bad employees can do in the workplace.

That’s also true in public agencies. Bad managers can single-handedly drive away employees and ruin the reputation of a department, making it hard to hire new people. In some cases, their actions can lead to costly litigation.

Horton said the county is taking a look at how to improve the hiring process.

Glad to hear it.

The vetting of department heads should include a thorough background check of the candidates’ interactions with the employees they supervise, even if the county has to hire outside consultants to do that.

It may take more time and money, but in the long run, it will be well worth it.

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