Sacramento gets sensitive on harassment and discrimination policy

Pushed by a new reform-minded director of human resources hired away from Davis, the city of Sacramento soon will adopt a revised harassment and discrimination policy that incorporates tougher enforcement with a broader take on what constitutes problematic activity.

“We need much better than we had,” said City Councilman Steven Hansen, who has pushed for a new policy. “We have to be sure every nook and cranny of the city government treats people with respect.”

Under a proposed new Equal Employment Opportunity Policy crafted by human resources director Melissa Chaney, the definition of who is protected and the scope of what constitutes sexual, racial and other forms of discrimination and harassment in Sacramento will be expanded to be more inclusive. It is based on policies used in Davis and will likely be adopted as city policy in coming weeks. The new policy does not require a vote of the City Council to take effect.

“It’s more progressive and more modern,” Chaney said. “The policy before was a little dated.”

The proposed language spells out sexual harassment rules in more detail than the old policy in an attempt to clarify inappropriate action and provide examples of bad behavior.

It warns that “conduct which seems innocent or trivial to some people may constitute unlawful sexual harassment.”

Transgressions listed include displaying bawdy bumper stickers, “leering” and “invitations to engage in sexual activities, which need not be based on genuine sexual interest or desire.”

The new policy also forbids discrimination based on “gender expression,” a category in addition to gender and gender identity. It is defined as a “person’s gender-related appearance or behavior, whether or not stereotypically associated with the person’s sex at birth.”

The proposed policy also lays out a more robust and detailed approach for investigating claims.

It states that the city “will consider any report of harassment, discrimination, retaliation, or malicious false accusation to be deserving of investigation.”

The old policy, last updated in 2012, did not offer action on all complaints.

“We’ll be investigating everything,” Chaney said. “We will deal with things even if it doesn’t have an EEO component because the goal is to fix the problem.”

Chaney said the intent of the new policy is to catch situations that may create workplace problems even if they fall short of breaking the code.

“It’s not anything that’s legally wrong, but it’s still not right,” she said of the situations she wants to examine. “I want (employees) to feel like they are heard.”

Chaney said that eventually she would like to see the city adopt a restorative justice approach to complaints.

Under that system, gaining popularity in criminal justice circles, accuser and accused would have the opportunity to meet face-to-face in a mediated discussion for each to speak about the situation and its personal impacts in the hope of crafting a healing resolution.

Unlike mediation, it is meant to address underlying emotions, rather than strictly dealing with legal outcomes.

Chaney said that for the foreseeable future, she will handle all equal opportunity complaints personally to ensure that new standards and procedures for investigation are followed.

She also plans to recommend that all city employees have in-person training on the standards. Currently, training is offered online to management, but policies are available to all employees. “I really think when you bring out a new policy like this and it is a change ... everybody needs to be trained on it,” Chaney said. “Every employee should be aware of this.”

She added that she would like to see any high-level complaints, such as any accusations against elected officials or employees at the department-head level or above, handled by an outside investigator.

“I think that having an independent person come in and investigate, it is a much better practice,” she said.

The city has faced high-level complaints before.

In April 2015, an employee in the city manager’s office filed a sexual harassment claim against Mayor Kevin Johnson. While that claim was denied by the city, a Sacramento Bee investigation found that an outside law firm that investigated the matter had recommended Johnson “be advised as to how his actions (i.e. hugging and being flirty) are being perceived” by some city employees. It also advised he should “refrain from hugging or touching anyone” at City Hall or at city-related events.

In August 2015, a city employee filed a complaint against Councilman Allen Warren, but later withdrew it.

Based on that incident, Councilman Hansen asked the city auditor to review the city’s sexual harassment policy. The audit, released in September 2015, found the policy to be lacking, which helped spark creation of Chaney’s revision.

Most recently, the city lost a racial discrimination suit in June filed by an employee of the Department of Public Works. The employee’s lawyer in that case, Richard Lewis, expects the award to be finalized next week and estimates it will be about $1 million. The city may appeal.

The city was unable to immediately provide the number of current discrimination and harassment complaints it has received in 2016.

City Manager John Shirey, who hired Chaney, said that Chaney had “opened my eyes” to underperformance with the city’s existing equal employment opportunity policies, and that he supported her reforms.

“Melissa is very much about changing things and bringing them to order,” Shirey said.

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa