City officials say they have no tolerance for sexual harassment in the workplace, after a report found that some employees within Moab’s public works department created a hostile work environment for others.
A city-commissioned investigation by the Salt Lake City law firm of Parr Brown Gee & Loveless reported that numerous employees complained of inappropriate behavior and crude remarks by some of their colleagues. But the employees told investigators that no steps were taken to address or correct the behavior until someone informed former Moab City Public Works Director Jeff Foster about it last December.
Moab City Manager Rebecca Davidson said that within two hours of the time that the allegations first came to her attention, the city took steps to hire an independent, third-party firm to conduct a fair and unbiased investigation.
“We acted on it immediately,” Davidson said. “These things aren’t tolerable around here; we won’t accept them.”
The Moab City Recorder’s Office spent more than $18,400 on the investigation; the Moab City Council retroactively approved the expenditure earlier this month. The attorneys involved with the investigation earned $370 per hour, and $255 per hour, respectively.
The report found that one female employee, in particular, repeatedly told her co-workers about her sex life in graphic detail, and made double entendres that left little to the imagination.
To be clear, Davidson said, the report should not be seen as an indictment of the public works department as a whole.
“I don’t want to broad-brush this and make it seem like everyone in public works has a problem, because they don’t,” she said.
Foster, who resigned from his position in February, said the woman was the only employee in the department who acted inappropriately. He said that he and another person confronted the woman as soon as she returned from a vacation on Dec. 28, 2015, and ordered her to behave in a professional manner while she was on the job.
“We told her very clearly that she could not make those comments – that it had to stop,” he told the Moab Sun News.
In addition to its findings regarding the employees’ complaints, the report says that Foster falsified the woman’s time card, adding hours to it when she missed four days of work in the span of one week.
Foster said the woman was stranded in Colorado at the time, so he altered the hours on the card. He said that under the city’s former manager, he had the latitude to allow his department’s employees to make up time at a later date.
“Rebecca didn’t go along with that, which was different from what we did in the past,” he said.
Based on the report’s findings, city employees will now be required to attend anti-sexual harassment training sessions; employees may also be required to undergo training in the areas of workplace diversity, management and employee supervision, Davidson said.
Going forward, Davidson said, the city plans to update its personnel handbook.
As it’s currently written, the manual instructs city employees to report incidents of sexual harassment to their department heads, who are, in turn, supposed to refer any complaints to the city’s personnel officer. However, the investigation found that process eliminates the “normal” chain of command, necessitating the changes that Davidson is seeking.
Davidson said the city has also taken actions against the female employee in question, whose name was redacted from a copy of the report obtained by the Moab Sun News. But Davidson said she is not at liberty to discuss the matter.
“I’m being told right now that I can’t (comment),” she said.
Moab City Council member Heila Ershadi said she appreciates the professional way that Davidson dealt with a “tough situation.”
“I think that management handled things absolutely appropriately … and I think it’s clear now that this sort of harassing behavior has no place in the city,” Ershadi said. “Neither will fudging time sheets, or giving special preference to a particular employee.”
Ershadi said that although the report set the city back more than $18,000 in previously unbudgeted expenses, it was a wise investment to make.
“Lawyers do make good money … and their services are valuable, because if you mishandle something like that, it can cost you a lot more in the long run,” she said.
Foster said he tried to talk to the city manager about both issues before the city commissioned the investigation. But Davidson was always busy and did not respond to his text messages, he said, adding that she canceled two meetings where he hoped to go over everything.
“We just never had a chance to talk about these things,” he said.
While Foster said that one woman was responsible for the inappropriate behavior, Davidson said the issue of concerns about sexual harassment in the workplace had been going on for more than just a few weeks – perhaps over the course of several years.
Among other things, public works employees told investigators that they routinely hear general comments that could be interpreted in a sexually suggestive way, including “cat-calls” of women as they walked by.
They said they’d been told that their department is a “man’s world,” and that male employees regularly use “rough language” on the job.
Other employees, in response, said that the comments about a “man’s world” referred to the physical demands that come with the department’s jobs. The “rough language,” they said, included common swear words that were not used in a sexual context.
But other language attributed to the woman named in the report is hard to misinterpret.
Investigators reported that while she was in front of a colleague, the woman gave her smart phone a voice command to describe a sex act. On another occasion, she told co-workers that her boyfriend “really took care of (her) last night;” she also made unwanted remarks about about a co-worker’s sexual preferences, the report found.
One employee told investigators that the woman’s comments were no worse than what other public works employees said on the job.
Employees said the woman also spent “large amounts” of her work time texting, listening to music and paying household bills on her cell phone, and that she also read books when she was supposed to be working. They raised concerns that she was allowed to make up her lost-time hours by working in Foster’s office after she was reprimanded for her behavior, even though other employees didn’t have the same opportunity.
In response, Foster told investigators that contrary to times when other employees’ time cards came up short, the woman’s absences were not expected.
Davidson declined to say whether or not the falsification of time cards is a fireable offense.
“I’m not going to conjecture on that,” she said.
For his part, Foster said the lack of communication with Davidson regarding the time card and other issues ultimately factored into his decision to resign as public works director.
“I wasn’t trusted anymore,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I had the latitude to operate my department anymore.”
$18K spent on investigation; City manager says steps being taken to prevent inappropriate behavior
These things aren’t tolerable around here; we won’t accept them.