For the first time in a long while, the workplace culture at the Denver Botanic Gardens is looking rosy. After more than two years of high turnover and management problems, DBG executive director Brinsley Burbidge has stepped down, and employees wasted no time in toasting his departure.
Staff members heard the news during a meeting September 25 and immediately organized a happy-hour celebration at the Wynkoop Brewing Co. "This is not so much to celebrate that he's gone," one employee said over a glass of pale ale. "It's to celebrate that maybe now we'll get the leadership we need."
The twelve current and three former employees at the bar -- along with a number of their co-workers -- had been making allegations about firings, forced resignations and position eliminations ever since Burbidge was hired in February 1999. They formed a group called the Friends of Botanic Gardens and appealed to the board of trustees in May 2001, to do something about the high turnover and a management style they described as dictatorial.
The board responded by assembling a subcommittee to look into the charges and hiring an independent investigator ("The Secret Garden," June 14, 2001). But while the investigation focused on employment problems, other concerns sprouted at the DBG like noxious weeds. Insiders started raising questions about the management of the institution's finances and Burbidge's blooming relationship with a female underling, which became a focus of talk when garden employees alleged that she was receiving preferential treatment.
During the investigation, which was completed in September 2001, probers found little in the way of wrongdoing. The board was "alerted to some things it wants to do better," and Somerville Partners was hired to work with Burbidge on his management style, but allegations of financial mismanagement were found to be baseless, and the relationship Burbidge had with the staffer in question was described as "platonic." Still, the woman wasn't allowed to report directly to Burbidge after the investigation concluded ("Growing Pains," November 8, 2001).
Confusion over that relationship continues to linger. Many employees report that Burbidge has since become engaged to the woman, who no longer works at the DBG, while others believe the two have already gotten married. Board chairman Doug Jones, who says he and Burbidge work closely with one another, confirmed that Burbidge and the former employee are engaged but says it's not an issue since she no longer works there. "I don't think most of the board is even aware of it," Jones adds. For his part, Burbidge flatly denies that he is engaged.
Speculation is also swirling over what prompted Burbidge's sudden resignation. The employees who gathered for beers last week are all convinced that Burbidge was asked to resign, despite his insistence to the contrary. "I wanted to leave at a high point," Burbidge explains. "I know we've irritated one or two people, but we've done a lot of great things. We've changed to low-water consumption plants, we've achieved a lot in outreach and education, and we're financially sounder than we've ever been."
"There was no pushing out or anything," Jones adds. "He came to a point in his life where he decided to pursue other opportunities."
But employees feel the timing of Burbidge's announcement is suspicious. In August, the board commissioned Somerville Partners to mail surveys to the homes of employees, donors and volunteers in an effort to "make sure we're responding to our customers," Jones explains. The survey asked people whether they think the DBG is fulfilling its mission; whether they feel their contributions are valued; and whether they'd recommend that friends and family members visit the gardens. They were also asked to list their two favorite and least favorite things about the DBG, and there was a small space at the bottom for comments. The board had finally gotten most of the surveys back and was planning to discuss the results at its September 24 board meeting when Burbidge resigned.
Jones says there's no correlation between the surveys and Burbidge's announcement. In fact, he says, the survey responses were overwhelmingly positive. "There weren't any alarming signs or anything really negative," he says. Asked whether employees raised any management concerns in the surveys, Jones replies, "None whatsoever."
The employees themselves tell a very different story. Rather than restrict their comments to the few lines at the bottom of the survey, many returned several pages of written concerns. "I wrote about [Burbidge's] affair, the lack of ethics and honesty at the DBG, the turnover and the complete lack of direction from anyone," says one employee, adding that nineteen workers have left so far this year.
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"We only stayed because we had a glimmer of hope," says another. "It will take an extraordinary person to come in and understand this mess and turn it around, but at least we have that hope now."
Employees were caught off guard by the timing of Burbidge's announcement, but they say they knew it was coming. "I would have expected this to happen in October, around the time of his next quarterly review. No one believes he actually resigned," says one. "I think there was some method to this -- that the board felt it had to go through the steps of working with him before they could get rid of him."
Although Burbidge officially left on Monday, he will continue working with the DBG for a couple of weeks to help during the transition period. Jones says that there was no golden parachute in Burbidge's contract but that the DBG worked out a deal to compensate him; he declined to go into further details, as did Burbidge. Jones expects a national search to be conducted for Burbidge's successor.
Nora Simmons is eager to see who that will be. Simmons helped organize the Friends of Botanic Gardens and until now has remained anonymous. The former retail-services manager for the DBG is happy to see the process her group started come full circle. "I hope this is an opportunity for the DBG to heal internally, because it's a great institution for Denver," she says. "I hope this closes an unfortunate episode in the gardens' history. We all still feel very strongly about the mission of the gardens, and hopefully, we can get someone in who will take that mission and hold it dearly."