Audit: City of Austin can improve on discrimination, harassment training


AUSTIN (KXAN) — You could call March 27, 2015 the catalyst. On that day, the city of Austin held a training session titled “Women Leading in Local Government.” During the session, city one of the speakers suggested women ask too many questions, do not like to deal with finances and should be spoken to differently than men.

The assistant city manager who organized the event resigned.

In response to that session, the Austin City Council stated in a resolution the session made “broad, demeaning generalizations” and relied on stereotypes to discuss female leaders. The resolution led to an external audit to review investigations of alleged discrimination, harassment and retaliation.

That audit is expected to be presented to city council’s Audit and Finance Committee on Wednesday.

The audit found investigation files were generally found to have appropriate information to support the final conclusion. However, it found the city can improve its processes in several areas. Some of the areas included the 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 by one, one year ago, a line of women came forward to speak their truth at city hall. Twenty individuals were signed up to speak, mostly women, sharing stories of harassment, discrimination and retaliation.

“It obviously had real impact,” Mayor Steve Adler said. “It made, for our council, this an issue that we wanted to take very seriously. And we need to make sure that in every point in time we are doing everything we can and should be doing.”

Adler recalled the power of the women coming forward, both current and former city employees.

“You look at numbers sometimes and you can lose the fact that these are real people.”

People, like Kristin Carlton, who has worked for the city 20 years. Carlton says she was bypassed for promotions by men with far less experience.

“I was denied what this individual got immediately. And I’m here to speak out about it,” she told KXAN on Tuesday.

Two years ago, she says she spoke, in detail, of her experience to the city’s Human Rights Commission and Women’s Commission.

“I have been told I go around and cause trouble. By speaking out,” Carlton said. “If that alone, speaking before those commissions is causing trouble, then I’m ready to cause a lot more. Because I’ve documented instances where I have been discriminated against.”

The audit discovered the number of investigations related to discrimination, harassment or retaliation has increased when you consider it as a percentage of the total personnel investigations conducted over the last three years.

“That percentage has been trending up,” Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said. “I’ll be very interested too to talk tomorrow about whether our staff have any suggestions.”

Tovo said she wants to know more about the trend, as well as why any complaints would stay at a department level rather than go to Human Resources. Tovo says, to all the employees who stepped forward calling for changes in the system, their voices are being heard and improvements will be made.

“The city of Austin can be a great place to work. But you need to be treated fairly. And there needs to be truth and openness and no deception,” Carlton said.

Harassment complaints grew from 38 in 2014 to 71 in 2016. Discrimination complaints did drop from 28 in 2015 to 15 the following year.

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