WA Department of Health union members call to end mandatory 'Outward Mindset' program

More than 250 union members within the Washington Department of Health have signed a petition against a mandatory training program within the agency called Outward Mindset, and they're calling for it to become optional.

Outward Mindset is a program developed by The Arbinger Institute, a training and consulting company based in Utah.

In theory, it's supposed to help participants empathize within the workplace but when put into practice, Rachelle Martin, a union steward for the Washington Federation of State Employees, says Outward Mindset has been weaponized against workers when they speak up about issues within the Department of Health.

"The mental toll that [Outward Mindset] has taken is so significant that people can’t do their work," said Martin.

Martin joined the Washington Department of Health in 2020 and says she received a box filled with Outward Mindset materials, along with two days of training.

She initially thought Outward Mindset was beneficial and has heard some DOH workers like the program, but her optimism for it faded as she heard from more DOH union members on how it was being utilized against them.

"Outward Mindset has been used as a tool to bully staff into being really quiet; into pretending that things are OK," said Martin.

Outward Mindset has a number of books, videos and "self-awareness" tools that are designed to help participants shift their focus when a problem arises.

The program believes that people who have an ‘inward mindset’ may potentially blame others or even avoid responsibility when the goal is to get participants to adopt an ‘outward mindset’ to facilitate more accountability and collaboration.

However, the Washington Federation of State Employees says Outward Mindset plays "mind games."

"It's very normal to have a facilitator or supervisor or some leadership members say, well really, this could ultimately be your fault, so let’s talk about how you’re perpetuating this cycle of victimhood," said Martin.

Martin says she has heard from members who are in anguish from undergoing Outward Mindset.

WFSE provided testimonies from dozens of union members, including supervisors, claiming:

"My employees, who are people of color, queer, and/or disabled, feel very uncomfortable with OM overall."

Outward Mindset is "damaging" and "is triggering for trauma survivors."

"We shouldn’t, as people that are being victimized, be forced to identify with their abusers and that’s what happens," said Martin.

WFSE has even turned to Gov. Jay Inslee for help by sending this letter, outlining problems stemming from Outward Mindset:

The union says it never received a response, but FOX 13 did.

Inslee's office sent us this response:

"Bottom line: The claims about Outward Mindset are false."

FOX 13 took some concerns about Outward Mindset to the WA Department of Health.

"We've been utilizing Outward Mindset for some time, and we have heard positive feedback from employees that this really has helped them to better, better engage and know how to come into the Department of Health," said Amber Santoyo, Chief People Officer for the DOH.

Santoyo says changes have been made to some problematic parts of the Outward Mindset curriculum, but FOX 13 asked the DOH how certain messaging was allowed into DOH training in the first place:

Santoyo says she needed more information before making a comment on the page that came straight out of the Outward Mindset handbook distributed to DOH workers.

We showed the same page to Betsy Miller, who says she has 40 years of experience dealing with labor relations, mediation, employment discrimination and more.

"It may be really leaving the message that they do not feel they deserve to have the full level of equality in the workplace and in the state of Washington, there’s very much a concern about equity and inclusion," said Miller.

Miller has read the Outward Mindset books and says she found some messaging that can help leaders, but she believes Washington DOH should take some time to reevaluate Outward Mindset.

"I do think that with 250 union members raising issues that it would be a great opportunity to put the training on hold," said Miller. "Just suspend training for a period of time and be able to fully listen to the point of understanding, which again would model the Outward Mindset."

Santoyo with DOH told FOX 13 News that there are no plans to let employees opt out of Outward Mindset for now, but that they are open to feedback.

Martin with WFSE says their concerns have fallen on deaf ears.

"People deserve a safe and respectful work environment and the Outward Mindset curriculum does not facilitate that conversation," said Martin. "We should tell people, you deserve all of these things, and we are here to support you."