Sexism, harassment, and toxic HR departments in Seattle city government

After a week of outstanding reporting by Crosscut on accusations of sexism, harassment, and dysfunctional and “toxic” HR departments in the city bureaucracy, today Mayor Jenny Durkan announced how she would be addressing the issues.

Durkan has an enormous mess to clean up.

The coverage began two weeks ago (though the problems have clearly persisted for years), when the Seattle Times exposed a settlement with two Seattle Public Library employees over a sexual harassment claim, in which the two employees were forced to lose their jobs.

Last Thursday, David Kroman at Crosscut reported that city employees have been organizing among themselves to fight back against a culture of harassment and discrimination, and that the city’s HR departments are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

For a long time, many of the larger city departments have had their own HR units, run independently under the thumb of department directors and with few consistent policies or procedures shared across the city bureaucracy. That also meant that harassment claims, such as the two library employees’, could be handled quietly within a department.

Former Mayor Ed Murray began a process of consolidating all of the disparate HR units into one central department to improve efficiency and consistency, but that effort stalled out midway, leaving an even worse mishmash of bureaucracies and policies, and a “toxic” culture that Kroman detailed in another article earlier this week.

By Wednesday, city officials were feeling the pressure to respond. Kroman posted a follow-up piece with officials’ reactions.

Today, Mayor Durkan responded more forcefully. She announced that her administration will be conducting a city-wide review of harassment and discrimination policies, through an inter-departmental team that includes staff from the Mayor’s Office, Council member Teresa Mosqueda, and labor representatives (a large number of city employees are unionized). Notably, HR seems to be excluded from the team; that makes sense, since they are likely to be the target of much of the investigation.

Durkan has also put in place a new policy prohibiting individual departments’ HR units from negotiating settlement agreements for harassments claims and other grievances; those must now be routed through the central HR department.

I have huge admiration for the employees who have gone public with their personal experiences of harassment, discrimination and other forms of mistreatment within the city government, despite the dangers of retaliation and other personal consequences. They deserve our full and unwavering support.

And kudos to David Kroman for his local investigative reporting over the past week (here’s his summary of today’s announcement by the Mayor). Several excellent local reporters, including The Stranger’s Sydney Brownstone, are also covering today’s news, and I’ll post a full news recap in the morning.