After a promise late last year to consolidate the city's process for handling sexual harassment complaints, Mayor Jenny Durkan today e-mailed city employees to tell them that she will stop allowing city departments to settle harassment claims.
Her letter insists that "we have HR professionals who work with the highest level of integrity to ensure harassment complaints are addressed with a sense of urgency, safety, and transparency." She continued: "Though they are doing important work on training and reporting, I know we can all do better."
As her predecessor was wont to do, Durkan also announced that she would be assembling an interdisciplinary task force to study the problem.
"The City will be doing an extensive evaluation of our approach to workplace harassment," she wrote. The task force will come up with recommendations by May and include Durkan's staff, Councilmember Mosqueda or a representative from her office and labor representatives.
And in the interim, Durkan announced that the city's central Human Resources department and the Office of Civil Rights would be "eliminating settlements within departments, implementing mandatory anti-harassment training, and conducting a citywide employee survey."
In November, The Stranger reported that a whistleblower and a group of employees petitioned City Light to start taking sexual harassment and sexism within its ranks more seriously. The city also hired an outside investigator to look into allegations of harassment and sexism read before the Seattle Women's Commission. Seattle City Light CEO Larry Weis resigned in early December, and the interim CEO of the department released a video informing employees that the department took sexual harassment claims seriously. David Kroman at Crosscut recently published two stories on sexual harassment among city employees and how the city responds. First, he reported on a group of city employees partially inspired by the City Light whistleblower known as the Seattle Silence Breakers. The second story focused on a "toxic" culture behind the city's human resources network itself.
One of the ideas outlined in Durkan's email, mandating anti-harassment training, has had questionable effectiveness elsewhere. City Council member Lisa Herbold asked Mayor Durkan to reevaluate the usefulness of this kind of training last week, and suggested training that teaches bystanders to intervene in harassment might be better instead. (Mandatory training was also one of the demands made by the group of City Light employees who first brought the issue to the City Council and Durkan's attention.)
Still, Herbold said she was pleased that Durkan would be including the Office of Civil Rights in her quest to tackle sexual harassment among city employees.
“It is imperative that the Office for Civil Rights and city employees have a role in the Executive’s effort to update the City’s sexual harassment policies and practices, and I am pleased that Mayor Durkan has included them,” said Herbold, chair of the Civil Rights committee, said in a statement. “Likewise, the State Legislature has outlined a similar role for the Washington Human Rights Commission to create model policies to prevent sexual harassment and assault from ever occurring in the first place. It’s the right thing at the right time.”
Council Member Teresa Mosqueda, chair of the new interdisciplinary team, also praised Durkan's executive order as a first step. "We must be bold in our actions and act with urgency and compassion to listen to those who have been silenced or ignored, and ensure that every worker and workplace is free of harassment, assault, and retaliation," she said in a statement.