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Audit finds inconsistent tracking of Austin harassment investigations


City Council members ordered the audit last year after staff members raised concerns about investigations.

Harassment, discrimination and retaliation complaints are on the rise in the city.

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.

RELATED: Austin employees bring discrimination concerns to City Council

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, which has experience evaluating similar processes in other cities.

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.

RELATED: Council strengthens rules against harassment at City Hall

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 the report.

Auditors didn’t have any concerns about case outcomes in the cases they reviewed.

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.

IN-DEPTH: Housing official faked reprimand of employee in harassment case

Even similar cases can have greatly 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 — though co-workers said it was common for him to grab women’s hands and kiss them.

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.

Human resources staff members weren’t available Tuesday to speak about specific case outcomes or overall guidance for standards of proof.

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