Harassment prevention training for city of Austin employees still not ready

Austin City Hall (KXAN Photo)
Austin City Hall (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Mandatory training that covers discrimination, harassment and retaliation policies for city of Austin employees was supposed to be in place about six months ago — but it’s not ready yet.

KXAN spoke with one employee who’s filed a sexual harassment complaint in the past. And, she’s not alone.

Back in March, an audit of the city’s harassment, discrimination and retaliation investigation practices found the city can improve its processes in several areas. It found a lack of a proactive training program for all employees investigating discrimination, harassment or retaliation; insufficient guidance for personnel investigations; and ineffective utilization of technology to manage and track complaints – limiting the city’s management and oversight abilities.

One of the recommendations was to bring Austin in line with other cities that require a training course for all employees. Austin’s Human Resources says the online course is still in development and will move forward as soon as a new employee relations manager is hired, whenever that is. But the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the union representing city of Austin employees, says this needs to be a priority.

“It is alarming to me the number of women who are coming forward and there is nowhere to go to be heard. You can go to HR and they are the deciders. And they really do nothing,” Carol Guthrie with AFSCME said. “If you don’t ever make it a priority to train people, make sure they understand it and then tell them what the consequences will be if they violate it, this is worth nothing. It’s worth absolutely nothing.”

“Until it becomes a priority for someone, somewhere at the city of Austin that women matter, they count and they deserve to have a decent workplace to go to, they’re just going to have to fend for themselves, because there’s nowhere for them to go,” Guthrie said. “And that’s a shame — with an employer this size — that we cannot make women a priority.”

City employee and AFSCME Vice President Susan Scalon told KXAN, “In the 90s, I had a supervisor that was very inappropriate…I complained, the other women did, and he hurt my career. Every chance he got.”

Susan has seen the ugly cycle time and time again over her 28-year career with the city of Austin.

“Through the years it has just always been there. You’re a woman. You don’t get listened to,” she said.

More recently, Scalon recalled the time a co-worker tried to smooth over sexist comments. Scalon says when she spoke up at a work meeting, saying she didn’t agree with a decision they were about to make, she was told, “to ‘stop yelling.’ And I said ‘I’m not yelling.’ And then he says to me, ‘Well, you’re whining.’ And I called him on it and I said don’t ever say that again to me ever. Well he kind of freaked out and came around the table and I’m getting up, I’m mad, I’m leaving, I’ve got my papers in my hands and he’s hugging me. Apologizing. And I kept putting my hand up. It’s OK, you know, just – he keeps hugging. And he says, ‘Well it’s not OK, I’m really sorry.’ I mean I sincerely believe he freaked out. But, he hugged me all the way into the hall, he never stopped hugging, I’m not hugging him back. I don’t want to be hugged anymore. To the point that I was in tears. I felt so humiliated and, I don’t know, disrespected by that. Like, I’m not somebody you can just hug and make up with. That’s not how it works in the workplace. So that really was kind of the icing on the cake and that’s when I went and made a formal complaint.”

The story scratched the surface of a deeper reality Guthrie says women are trying to claw their way out of. She says HR does not do enough to respond to these types of complaints.

“What we know is that any time, any time someone is accused of some violation of the personnel policies, they are immediately placed on administrative leave,” Guthrie said. “So I do not understand why something as serious as sexual harassment  — they cannot place that person on administrative leave.”

Another woman the union is working with is still waiting on the results of her investigation more than a year later.

“I have another individual who reported her case in October of 2016,” Guthrie said. “It’s just horrible. It’s absolutely horrible.”

Guthrie said the only other alternative is to sue.

She read KXAN a portion of a statement from someone who intends to take that route.

“He leaned in and started to smell the back of my hair and neck,” the statement read. “He was making loud inhaling sounds and pressed himself up against my side,  against my leg, my arm, my back. He inhaled loudly again and said wow, you smell so good. Just like candy. You smell good enough to eat, like Skittles. I was so scared but managed to jump away from him and thankfully the elevator doors opened. I told him he was gross and creepy and to stay away from me. He began to laugh and walked away. I went to my desk to try to calm down because I was so shaken up.”

Guthrie said she’s hearing about incidents like this too often.

“I hope that this story will let people know that this is happening at the City of Austin. It’s going on every day.”

KXAN brought the concerns to Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, who’s backed efforts to enhance harassment policies. She says she’s comfortable with the progress HR is making to update training.

“My hope would be that that online training would become required of all new employees, but also our existing employees as well,” Tovo said. “It’s information that really all of our employees can benefit from, from knowing what behaviors are inappropriate and illegal in the workplace, but also how an employee who has concerns can move forward.”

Tovo also pointed to efforts to get a third party to handle complaints, so there is another resource outside of the city to respond to concerns. She said that’s in direct response to employees who came forward saying they would have benefited having someone independent of the city.

“I believe that the city is continuing to make strides in this area and has sent a very loud signal to its employees and to its management that that kind of behavior will not be tolerated here at the city of Austin. It is not a standard of conduct that’s appropriate or legal and we’ll take appropriate action,” Tovo said.

The Human Resources Department told KXAN in a statement that it “maintains an ongoing commitment to continually improving our processes and training.”

The 4-hour physical course, “Preventing Harassment and Creating a Respectful Work Environment” is offered several times a year and as requested by individual departments. KXAN is waiting to hear back from HR on how many departments have requested that course over the last three years.

So far in 2017, the city has had fewer harassment complaints filed than last year. That includes complaints of sexual harassment. As of mid-December, there have been 25 harassment complaints. Last year there were 71. But, overall, the audit from this spring found complaints of harassment, retaliation and discrimination have gone up as a percentage over the overall personnel investigations in the last three years.

“I kind of want to just keep being here until something happens,” Scallon said of her employment with the city. “Speaking up. Continuing to speak up.”

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