A City Light-funded investigator heard from employees about inappropriate behavior, including unsolicited touching, but found insufficient evidence to back up an allegation of blatant sexism.
An investigator hired by Seattle City Light last year heard from a number of employees about inappropriate and disrespectful behavior at the utility but found insufficient evidence to back up an allegation of blatant sexism, says a report released Friday.
City Light’s new leader says the action shows the utility cares about transparency, while a former employee who helped bring the allegations to light and who has sued City Light says the utility is downplaying its issues and protecting itself. Seattle Silence Breakers, an anti-harassment group, also criticized the report.
City Light retained employment attorney Celeste Monroe in October 2017 to carry out an investigation after a number of employees in the utility’s Customer Energy Solutions division signed a petition that expressed concern about “blatant sexism experienced by many people” in the division and that requested training.
“The investigation took considerable time” due to the number of people who signed the petition and other issues raised during the process, City Light general manager and CEO Debra Smith said in a statement.
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“We are releasing this in the interest of transparency and creating a safe workplace for all,” added Smith, who started her job last month.
Former City Light employee Beth Rocha, who helped write and collect signatures for the petition, criticized the report.
“The conclusions are biased and don’t represent the reality of a division that has been known to be filled with sexism and sexual harassment,” Rocha said. “This is standard issue by the city. They’re in protective mode.”
Rocha alleged she and her co-workers had been leered at, had their shoulders rubbed, and been subjected to lewd remarks and unwanted propositions. She said her experiences included a male employee asking her, “What color panties are you wearing today?”
City Light paid about $46,000 for the investigation, spokeswoman Scott Thomsen said.
The petition and how City Light responded to it received widespread attention in the media and at Seattle City Hall about a year ago as the Me Too movement gained steam.
The document and Rocha’s own allegations helped drive City Council discussions about harassment.
She meanwhile helped convene the Seattle Silence Breakers: a group of city employees and other people meeting to combat harassment and discrimination.
After investigating Rocha’s personal allegations, City Light cited a manager for not immediately reporting a complaint and an employee for violating workplace expectations of mutual respect.
The utility rejected sexual-harassment allegations brought by Rocha. She said the investigations had ignored evidence and sought to discredit her.
In January, Rocha filed a claim for damages against the city, and in July, she filed a lawsuit.
Monroe found insufficient evidence of blatant sexism in the Customer Energy Solutions division, her report for City Light says. Rocha wasn’t interviewed because her lawyer didn’t return a request, the report says.
“The majority of those individuals who signed the petition did not experience or observe acts constituting sexism,” the report says. “Rather, most of the signors said they signed the petition in support of those who might be enduring such treatment and/or in support of additional training for the department.”
An employee did tell Monroe about past incidents the investigator deemed violations of workplace-respect expectations, including an unsolicited massage and an unsolicited kiss. Others mentioned unwanted touching, as well.
Ten women indicated they had been referred to by another employee in terms they didn’t appreciate, such as “babe” and “sweetheart.” Once the behavior was brought to the attention of leadership, “the employee was instructed to stop and he did,” the report says.
City Light described Monroe as an independent investigator. Rocha’s lawyer, Susan Mindenbergs, said the report shouldn’t be considered independent.
“This was paid for by City Light,” she said.
Mindenbergs said the report shouldn’t undermine the legitimacy of the petition, which had 42 signatures and was meant as a push for training.
“People at Seattle City Light took collective action because they were concerned about sexual harassment,” she said.
The Silence Breakers and their supporters have expressed a lack of confidence in departments such as City Light to conduct their own investigations.
In a statement, the group called the report a “defective portrayal of the sexist culture in the division” and said it “attempts to cover up management’s misdeeds, assassinate the character of the person who brought the issues to light and make light of decades-long treatment employees endured.”
“What City Light management does in response will determine whether they get what a discrimination-free workplace looks like or not,” the group added.
In September, Mayor Jenny Durkan signed an executive order for the city to create a new unit to carry out investigations of alleged misconduct across Seattle government, rather than continuing to allow departments like City Light to police their own workplaces.
“Working with Mayor Durkan, we will continue building on the steps taken to strengthen our workplace and support the good work that City Light’s employees do,” Smith said Friday. “We can and we will do better.”