Updated at 2:20 p.m. Sept. 22

Worcester city councilors say they’re frustrated but not surprised about the findings of an audit of city departments showing that non-white employees experience a toxic work environment.

The audit, which was conducted this year by the firm Letterman White Consulting, involved interviews and surveys of dozens of employees in the city’s human resources and health and human services departments.

The auditors said they uncovered an inequitable City Hall workplace where people of color feel excluded, exploited and scared of complaining about racism among coworkers. Some employees said city efforts to increase diversity and inclusion are superficial, and Worcester leaders only prioritize the needs of the city’s largely white and wealthy areas.

Councilor Etel Haxhiaj told GBH News the findings were unacceptable and necessitate immediate action to address racial inequities engrained in City Hall culture.

“I read the report three, maybe four times. And each time, it was more painful than the other,” Haxhiaj said. “It was so disheartening.”

City Council was scheduled to discuss the findings of the audit during a meeting Tuesday night, but Councilor Donna Colorio delayed the discussion until the council’s next meeting on Sept. 29. Colorio did not explain why she held the item, and GBH News’ attempts to contact her have been unsuccessful.

The 146-page report detailing the audit’s findings included numerous anonymous quotes from city staff who criticized leadership and said workers of color have limited opportunities to advance to higher positions. Non-white employees said they feel pressure to overperform their duties to meet managers’ expectations, and if they make a mistake, they’re reprimanded. But if a white employee commits an error, there’s no accountability.

“There is favoritism and nepotism, and people of color are simply ignored, disrespected and made to feel as if they have no voice or ideas or anything tangible to contribute,” one employee said.

Haxhiaj and Councilor Thu Nguyen said they were especially disappointed that some employees did not participate in the audit because they were afraid of reprisal. The councilors said that shows the extent of fear within the workplace about speaking up and challenging the status quo.

Still, Nguyen and Councilor Khrystian King told GBH News they weren’t surprised by some of the audit's findings because they've witnessed inequities around City Hall.

Nguyen, for example, used to work in the city’s Division of Youth Opportunities as an assistant program coordinator. They knew that many youth workers — most of whom were people of color — were paid under minimum wage.

“We had to fight every time to get them a better wage,” Nguyen said. “I think this [report] only scratches the surface” of the problem.

The auditors concluded that workers’ dissatisfaction with the workplace affects employee performance, morale and resilience. In fact, one employee argued that the open disrespect of workers of color is “exactly why the city is notorious for losing BIPOC talent.”

One such departure occurred in February when Stephanie Williams, who’s Black, resigned as Worcester’s chief diversity officer. In her resignation letter, Williams — who was tasked with increasing diversity and inclusion around City Hall — said her skills would be more useful in an environment where she could have greater impact.

The auditors recommended numerous steps to improve culture among city workers, including improving workplace racial discrimination and investigation programs; creating an equitable career ladder that allows staff to advance to higher positions; and partnering with community organizations and educational institutions to recruit more workers of color.

In a memo to city councilors responding to the audit report, acting City Manager Eric Batista, who’s also serving as interim chief diversity officer, said the findings “offer a rare opportunity to acknowledge the lived experience of our employees and to respond by implementing systemic solutions.” Going forward, he said he plans to hire a new full-time chief diversity officer, diversify the city’s workforce and ensure that all decision-making among city leadership prioritizes equity.

“We will work to codify these transformative changes as part of our standard management ethos and business practices,” he wrote.

Clarification: This story was updated to clarify that only Councilor Thu Nguyen previously worked for the Division of Youth Opportunities.