Au­dit: Austin ha­rass­ment-claim stan­dards weak

City lacks con­sis­tent train­ing, pro­to­col for in­ves­ti­gat­ing cases.

Austin American-Statesman - - METRO & STATE - By El­iz­a­beth Fin­dell efind­ell@states­man.com

Hu­man re­sources in­ves­ti­ga­tors look­ing into ac­cu­sa­tions of ha­rass­ing, in­tim­i­dat­ing and dis­crim­i­na­tory be­hav­iors by an Austin En­ergy su­per­vi­sor in 2013 had a prob­lem.

Nine wit­nesses didn’t want to co­op­er­ate. They told in­ves­ti­ga­tors there was a long his­tory of re­port­ing com­plaints about the su­per­vi­sor, but noth­ing ever changed.

In­stead, af­ter each in­ves­ti­ga­tion had con­cluded, the su­per­vi­sor had “re­cited por­tions of the tes­ti­mony (wit­nesses) had of­fered con­fi­den­tially in what they per­ceived to be an overt at­tempt to threaten and in­tim­i­date them,” ac­cord­ing to a June 2013 in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­port.

Austin En­ergy hu­man re­sources staff con­firmed to the 2013 in­ves­ti­ga­tors that the su­per­vi­sor had been the sub­ject of “nu­mer­ous em­ployee com­plaints” over the course of his em­ploy­ment. But there was no record of a sin­gle prior in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The 2013 in­quiry ul­ti­mately found the su­per­vi­sor had vi­o­lated city ha­rass­ment and em­ployee con­duct poli­cies, and he is no longer with the city. But the is­sues in the case il­lus­trate some of the sys­temic prob­lems de­scribed in an au­dit that a City Coun­cil com­mit­tee will re­ceive Wednesday.

A draft of the au­dit, which re­viewed cases be­tween 2010 and 2015, found the city lacks con­sis­tent stan­dards and train­ing when it comes to in­ves­ti­gat­ing claims of ha­rass­ment, dis­crim­i­na­tion and re­tal­i­a­tion.

The au­dit found dis­crep­an­cies in how doc­u­men­ta­tion is main­tained and said there is no com­pre­hen­sive list­ing of com­plaints. Fur­ther­more, the city doesn’t have suf­fi­cient pro­to­cols for em­ploy­ees con­duct­ing per­son­nel in­ves­ti­ga­tions, and in­ves­tiga­tive train­ing is in­con­sis­tent, ac­cord­ing to the au­dit by Ma­trix Con­sult­ing.

The au­dit sug­gests ha­rass­ment, re­tal­i­a­tion and dis­crim­i­na­tion com­plaints, should be in­ves­ti­gated by cen­tral hu­man re­sources in­ves­ti­ga­tors, and not the in­di­vid­ual de­part­ments.

Coun­cil mem­bers or­dered an au­dit of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion process a year ago, re­spond­ing to a stereo­type-rid­dled train­ing ses­sion on women in gov­ern­ment and com­plaints from em­ploy­ees. Twenty speak­ers pushed for the item at a March 24, 2016, meet­ing, call­ing Austin’s per­son­nel in­ves­ti­ga­tion sys­tem bro­ken.

Such claims have been on the rise among city em­ploy­ees. Ha­rass­ment, in par­tic­u­lar, was claimed in 38 com­plaints in 2014, 59 com­plaints in 2015 and 71 com­plaints last year. The per­cent­age of to­tal per­son­nel com­plaints in­volv­ing ha­rass­ment, dis­crim­i­na­tion and re­tal­i­a­tion has ticked up­ward from 26 per­cent in 2013 to 32 per­cent last year.

In the Austin En­ergy case, even when the su­per­vi­sor was di­rectly un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion, he took ac­tion against the wo­man who’d com­plained, de­lib­er­ately try­ing to draw scru­tiny to her job per­for­mance and telling co-work­ers he would make coun­ter­al­le­ga­tions, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

An Amer­i­can-States­man re­view of dozens of ha­rass­ment and dis­crim­i­na­tion com­plaints in­ves­ti­gated be­tween 2012 and 2016 found that in­ves­ti­ga­tors de­ter­mine many in­ci­dents don’t rise to the level of ha­rass­ment, but are vi­o­la­tions of em­ployee con­duct poli­cies.

Even sim­i­lar cases can have dif­fer­ent out­comes.

In 2015, an en­gi­neer in Public Works who’d pre­vi­ously been rep­ri­manded for sex­ual ha­rass­ment was cleared of ac­cu­sa­tions he’d re­peat­edly touched and kissed a fe­male co-worker be­cause there were no wit­nesses to spe­cific in­ci­dents.

But ac­cu­sa­tions that same year that a po­lice pro­gram spe­cial­ist had grabbed a fe­male co-worker’s hand in­ap­pro­pri­ately were sub­stan­ti­ated, de­spite the lack of wit­nesses, based on a “more likely than not” stan­dard and one for­mer in­ci­dent of touch­ing some­one’s knee.

Drunken text mes­sages a Parks and Re­cre­ation De­part­ment forestry tech­ni­cian sent a co-worker about his de­sire to kiss her and “en­gulf her” didn’t vi­o­late city pol­icy be­cause they were sent out­side of work hours. But a sex­u­ally ex­plicit text a groundskeeper in the de­part­ment ac­ci­den­tally sent a co-worker in­stead of his in­tended re­cip­i­ent did vi­o­late city rules.

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