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Audit update shows progress on city HR complaints, with more work needed

Monday, August 19, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

The city’s Human Resources Department has made some progress on achieving the recommendations outlined in a 2017 report that found the city was taking too long to investigate complaints brought by city employees. The report, from Matrix Consulting Group, also found the city lacked proper training to prevent instances of discrimination, harassment and retaliation.

In a presentation last week to City Council’s Audit and Finance committee, Human Resources Director Joya Hayes reviewed a recent analysis of steps the department has taken to improve management of investigations and training issues as well as actions that will be taken in the coming year.

Hayes’ presentation showed the department has set clear expectations for investigators in Human Resources and other departments in how to track progress and improve completion times, with better updates to complainants on the progress of their case.

She said there is work being done to create uniform standards for investigations using staff in departments where a complaint originates or using Human Resources’ team of three investigators and case managers. She added that Austin is one of the few cities that has innovated comprehensive guidelines for investigating complaints.

Hayes said her current budget request for an additional full-time position will help cut investigation time further. She outlined the department’s use of online training related to sexual harassment policies for city employees, and described how working toward a master agreement for third-party investigators will cut down on the procurement process that can add weeks and months to the length of an investigation.

Council Member and Committee Chair Alison Alter praised the department’s progress on sexual harassment training, but said investigation times need to be cut further and employees need greater awareness that they can request an external third-party investigation if they are concerned about having their case handled fairly.

“I remain concerned about the length of time to investigation,” she said. “You just gave one concrete thing you’re doing that addresses that to some degree with respect to the third party. But if folks feel it’s going to take six, 12, 18 months to get their case heard they are not going to bring it, and it does not send a signal that city management values our employees in the way I think they want to.”

The city ordered the Matrix report after a series of incidents and employee complaints showed the need to improve the system for handling complaints and lowering the frequency of problematic behavior.

Council Member Kathie Tovo questioned why some steps seen as a priority for Council are not expected to begin until October 2020. Hayes responded that the breadth of policy reviews and staffing issues make it difficult to promise that all steps will be completed to meet Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines in a shorter timeline.

Carol Guthrie of the employees union AFSCME said with some investigations still stretching a year in length, the city needs to continue to push for reforms.

“By the time you get the investigative report, you look at it and if you want a third-party review you’re going through yet another process. I am excited to hear what was presented here and I hope that that will work out some of these issues,” she said.

“My major concern with the discrimination and harassment policy that we worked so hard on to move forward … the city has taken the position that in order to validate whether or not discrimination or retaliation has occurred is that there needs to be an adverse impact, which is a very high level. It’s the legal level. I know you can be retaliated against in the workplace and it may not create an adverse impact which is loss of pay, but it still doesn’t mean you’re not being retaliated against.”

Photo by John Flynn.

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