Bias, retaliation top list of Seattle city employees’ concerns

A survey conducted in the wake of numerous accusations from city employees points to displeasure within the workforce.

Seattle Municipal Tower in Seattle, Jan. 19, 2018. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

A recent survey of more than 4,000 city employees shows a lack of trust in human resources and management, fear of retaliation for speaking out, a perceived lack of transparency and perceptions of bias in hiring and promotions.

The survey, run by the Seattle Office for Civil Rights, is part of the city’s broader Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) — an effort to reduce racial disparities within city government.

The questionnaire is administered every year. However, the latest is focused on workplace harassment, a reaction to reports of mistreatment within city government. The full results of the survey are due to be released in the coming months, but a summary was made available as part of a recent training for legislative staff, the first part of which was open to the public.

Spurred on by the #MeToo movement, city employees began coming forward to Crosscut and other publications in late 2017 and early 2018 with complaints of a toxic, discriminatory and retaliatory workplace. The grievances were not limited to just one department, with employees from City Light and city departments for transportation, information technology and elsewhere saying they were made to feel uncomfortable at work. In late 2017, a group of city employees, calling itself the Seattle Silence Breakers, began meeting during lunch hours to share stories and advocate for changes to city policy.

In response, Mayor Jenny Durkan ordered a review of the city’s anti-harassment policies shortly after taking office and routed all sexual-harassment settlements through the city’s central HR department. She formed an inter-departmental team consisting of employees in the mayor’s office, City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, labor representatives and a representative from the Silence Breakers. That team was slated to issue recommendations in May.

According to Stephanie Formas, spokesperson with the Mayor’s Office, "The anti-harassment and anti-discrimination [inter-department team] have identified 35 total recommendations and 126 strategies, and the City is now finalizing its final report as well as the implementation plan, with the aim of releasing the survey findings and recommendations in the coming weeks." 

As part of her review, Durkan also added a number of new questions related to workplace harassment to the city’s annual RSJI survey. The survey, which spanned nearly 60 questions, asked employees about a wide range of topics with regard to their workplace environment.

About 30 percent of the city’s staff answered the survey — totaling 4,231 employee responses. Thirty-six percent of respondents were people of color, roughly equal to the breakdown of the entire workforce. Forty-nine percent were women, which is higher than the city’s 38 percent total. Six percent are living with a disability. The survey was anonymous.

On management, the survey asked employees whether leadership took appropriate steps to respond to harassment complaints, gave fair and equal treatment to all employees, fostered an accepting workplace culture and several other similar questions.

The survey also asked employees to comment on whether they’ve heard inappropriate jokes, witnessed the sharing of inappropriate videos or photos, or experienced inappropriate touching, sexual advances, or quid-pro-quo deals involving sex and more.

Further, the survey asked if employees had experienced racism or sexism in different forms or whether management had created a toxic workplace.

The survey also asked employees to rate how well the city responded to complaints of any of the above.

The full results of the survey are still being prepared, according to Roberto Bonaccorso, spokesperson for the Office for Civil Rights. But at a retreat Tuesday, staff in the city’s Legislative Department were given a summary of the results of the survey.

On questions of race and gender, large numbers of people said they had either experienced or observed disparate treatment of employees.

24 percent percent of White respondents said they experienced and 27 percent witnessed unequal treatment due to their gender. Those numbers jumped to 33 and 34 percent of Latino/Hispanic respondents, 26 and 30  percent of American Indian employees, and 31 and 33 percent of people who put two or more races. 

On race, 31 percent of Black employees said they experienced disparate treatment due race/ethnicity; 30 percent said they'd observed as much. Those numbers are 24 and 26 percent for Asian employees; 23 and 23 percent for Latino employee and 19 and 20 percent for Middle Eastern employees. Seven percent of White respondents said they received different treatment and 10 percent said they'd observed it.

“I’ve been in the same department for 5 years, and the culture of my environment has been harassment on multiple levels and occasions,” one anonymous Black female respondent wrote in her survey response. “I’ve sought assistance through mediation, through my union stewards and rep and have spoken with my management on multiple occasions. It appears that nothing has ever happened as the behavior continues and happens primarily to people of color, primarily women of color.”

More broadly, the Office for Civil Rights listed seven “recurring themes” that showed up in the survey: “mistrust of HR process,” “mistrust of management,” “fear of retaliation,” ”lack of transparency,” “lack of awareness of reportable offenses,” “racial and gender bias in hiring and promotion,”  and “ageism.”

These recurring themes have frustrated many city employees. Speaking at the beginning of Tuesday’s legislative staff retreat, Information Specialist Rita Moore told the room, “We spend a lot of time talking about how to fix broken people and processes. But we need to focus on how the institution and work culture upholds harassment and discrimination and protects those who commit them. Issues keep returning because the root of the problem is in the institution which stays the same and reinforces the dominate culture which is set up to favor certain people and exclude others.”

A separate employee, who asked to not be identified, told Crosscut there is a discrepancy between how the city tells others to treat their employees and how it treats its own. “When we’re trying to tell everyone else how much family leave to give and how much to pay your workers, I feel like we should model how we treat our own workers,” said this person.

Because the survey is still in draft form, the numbers behind those themes were not immediately available. But in an analysis, the Office for Civil Rights wrote, “Many of the most vulnerable feel unsafe to bring forth complaints for a number of reasons — mainly due to fear of positionality, identity, retaliation, lack of trust in the reporting process, or lack of knowledge about reportable offenses.”

Bonaccorso could not say when the full results of the survey would be released, citing “staffing issues” within the office.

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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.