Austin HR vows to standardize harassment investigation process


Austin Human Resources staff will work to standardize training and expectations for harassment investigations, they told City Council members Wednesday — but they stopped short of agreeing to centralize the investigative process, which now often occurs in the individual city departments where complaints are reported.

Council members requested an audit of the harassment, discrimination and retaliation complaint investigation process last year, after several high-profile incidents and staff reports that the investigative process was broken. That report, presented Wednesday to the council’s Audit Committee, found inconsistencies in investigations and said harassment, discrimination and retaliation, as serious allegations, should be investigated by central HR staff investigators.

That sounds nice, but the central office doesn’t have the staff, said HR Director Joya Hayes.

“I concur with the concept of (human resources) corporate taking on more investigations,” Hayes said. “My reality is that…coming back before council and requesting additional positions to create, that is not necessarily something we can do immediately with the current budget restrictions.”

RELATED: Audit finds inconsistent tracking of Austin harassment investigations

But Council Member Kathie Tovo noted that some of the cases that have drawn the most public scrutiny for being problematic — such as within Austin Energy and the housing department — were handled by human resources staffers within those departments. She asked Hayes to brainstorm ideas for making the process more centralized, perhaps by moving personnel from other offices.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair noted that Austin has more staff assigned to personnel investigations than peer cities such as Denver and Fort Worth, according to the audit.

Other audit recommendations, from Matrix Consulting representative Alan Pennington, included creating a system to manage cases under investigation, developing standardized policies for investigators and requiring investigators to be comprehensively trained.

Matrix representatives examined 80 random case files from between 2010 and 2015. Overall, they found cases to have sufficient backup information, but no standardized formatting.

Members of the committee also questioned why people who make complaints are not given copies of the final reports. Full investigation reports are available to any member of the general public with a formal public information request, but investigators do not otherwise give them to complainants.

“It’s not right, what we’re doing,” said Council Member Leslie Pool. “The one person who should have access to that file is being prevented from getting that file.”

Hayes said she is wary of giving out investigation reports as a standard practice, because it might make witnesses more reluctant to talk, but said all complainants should know the reports are available with a formal request. She is considering routinely releasing limited-information summaries of cases.

A couple of current and former staffers turned out to the meeting to weigh in. Susan Scallon, a Development Services program manager, said unprofessional behavior in her office is ongoing and training on employee conduct is too weak. Mapi Vigil, who sued the city alleging retaliation and ultimately received a $590,000 settlement, called the procedural shifts a step in the right direction.

“The truth prevailed in court,” she said of her case. “Why did the truth not prevail in the (city) system? Because it was a broken system.”



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