Survey Says: Youre Screwed!

Former Reg reporter alleges she was fired for her remarks in a confidential management survey

Photo by Jack GouldPromising confidentiality, your company's top executives ask you to critique the management skills of your lousy supervisor. Do you trust them, tell the truth and risk retaliation? Or do you keep your head down, kiss butt and lie?

If you're facing this dilemma, consider the story of Kate Berry, until last month an award-winning business reporter at The Orange County Register. Berry says the Register fired her after she truthfully completed a mandatory—and supposedly anonymous—in-house management survey of her immediate supervisors.

"They commissioned a survey to find out what people were thinking about management," said Berry. "It was supposed to spark an open discussion of ways to improve the Register. But then they turned around and fired me for being honest."

Register editor Tonnie Katz dismissed Berry on Feb. 13—just five working days after Berry's supervisors discussed the less-than-flattering survey results during a staff meeting of the paper's business section. Though the paper had encouraged critical feedback on its editors, Katz allegedly claimed Berry had committed the unforgivable sin of "disrespecting an editor."

Several calls to Katz went unreturned. Neither Kate Butler nor Andrew Galvin, two of Berry's supervising editors, would agree to an interview. Galvin told the Weekly it "would be inappropriate" for him to comment.

During her two and a half years at the Register, Berry covered one of the paper's more daunting beats: California's complex energy crisis. Her reporting was both prolific and acclaimed. Last year, she won honors from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers in New York.

But life inside the paper, she says, was miserable. Berry—who has worked for Dow Jones News, The New York Times and the Arizona Republic—says her work was continuously hampered by petty, inexperienced editors.

"I can only describe the situation as one in which they [the editors] try to make a reporter's life miserable by giving them meaningless stories to do, forcing them to cover stories that aren't on their beat, and regularly insulting them or refusing to speak to them," said Berry, 33. "It seemed to me they had different rules for different people. They were very controlling."

In one bizarre incident, an editor told Berry not to wear "tight jeans" on the paper's casual Fridays. At other times, editors seemed more concerned with "messy desks" than news coverage. Berry says she once stood in the parking lot and listened as an editor "screamed at the top of his lungs that he didn't care what I wanted."

The wacky control extended to news stories. Berry says Katz ordered her never to write in depth about President George W. Bush's Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and its role in allowing Texas power companies to gouge Californians on electricity. "She didn't give me any reasons for that," said Berry.

Berry says she thought the survey—ordered last fall by the Register's parent company, Irvine-based Freedom Communications Inc.—might prompt desperately needed management changes. But she was also suspicious.

"They said they wanted honesty and that confidentiality was ensured, but they also assigned every survey a number so they could, if they wanted, trace the critics," said Berry. "I definitely think they pulled my survey, looked at it and retaliated. . . . That's so unethical."

One Register editor described Berry's version of events as "fantasy" but refused to elaborate. But a veteran reporter—who spoke on condition of anonymity—said Berry's firing was "scandalous."

"It looks like the editors sent a message that they don't want to hear anything but praise," the source said. "I'm embarrassed for them."

Ironically, Register officials said the 12-question Gallup Workplace Survey was aimed at "eliminating the 'us vs. them' issues" between employees and their managers. The Gallup Organization of Princeton, New Jersey—the company famous for conducting opinion polls—says its survey helps companies create a "great workplace" with "great managers." If employees feel their opinions count in the office, the Gallup theory goes, then the business can achieve "profitable growth for the long haul."

Perhaps even more ironic: a Register "talking points" memorandum distributed in February before Katz fired Berry demonstrates that editors specifically encouraged employee candor and were aware of managerial shortcomings.

"We need to trust each other," they wrote. "Communicate openly and consistently. . . . We need ideas from everyone that will help us accomplish the main goal (great journalism) and the second goal (a great workplace)," the business editors wrote. "We want a workplace where everyone is energized and engaged and feels they can do their best work, learn and also have some (a lot of?) fun."

"Fun?" says Berry. "The Register newsroom has been poisoned. It's very hard to do good work in such a bad work environment. . . . They don't tolerate any dissent."

 
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