The old way of handling sexual-harassment complaints in the city of Spokane led to disaster.
Back in 2015, former police spokeswoman Monique Cotton told the mayor and city administrator she'd been sexually harassed by then-police Chief Frank Straub, but said she didn't want her claims to be investigated.
So there was no full-scale, formal investigation. The Human Resources department was never informed. There was little-to-no documentation. And the city's policies were vague enough that it wasn't clear whether the policies had been followed or not.
It all fueled the controversy over the city's handling of sexual harassment — prompting accusations of dishonesty, an unsuccessful mayoral-recall attempt, multiple lawsuits, an expensive independent investigation, and an ethics complaint from the Spokane chapter of National Organization of Women.
But then, in September of 2016, NOW struck a deal with Mayor David Condon, pulling its complaint in exchange for a seat on the "21st Century Workforce Task Force," handing some of the city's biggest critics a role in rewriting its harassment policies.
Today, nearly every employee, from the mayor on down, has received sexual harassment training. And city unions are currently approving a draft of a new harassment policy, one intended to be more clear and comprehensive, giving victims multiple ways to report harassment.
Under the new policy, a situation like the Straub allegations would unfold much differently, the city's HR director Chris Cavanaugh suggests. The alleged victim would be told that the investigation would happen even without her cooperation. The HR department would be informed immediately. A formal investigation would be conducted. And because of the potential for conflicts of interest, Cavanaugh says, the city would generally hire an outside investigator to look into allegations against major division heads or mayoral cabinet members.
"With sexual harassment we have no option. We must look into it. Period," Cavanaugh says. "It's not about sex, it's about power. If that person is abusing power with one individual, they're [potentially] abusing it with others."
By the time Cavanaugh took over the city's HR department in August of 2016, it had spent a year under siege.
Former HR Director Heather Lowe and the city's labor relations manager, attorney Erin Jacobson, were both targets of an independent investigation into the Straub scandal, and both resigned from the city before it was done. To Cavanaugh's knowledge, there wasn't even a log to document ongoing HR complaints under investigation.
An independent investigation into the Straub scandal concluded the HR department "routinely overlooked" its own procedures. The policies that existed, it concluded, were often vague, contradictory, or did "not conform to best practice."
Others came to similar conclusions: A council aide analyzed five years of city harassment-investigation records and came to a similar conclusion, citing slow responses, poor record-keeping and investigations that sometimes barely scratched the surface.
"I don't believe our complaint process was working well," Cavanaugh says. "It was unclear who you were supposed to go to. I don't think there was a structure to make sure complaints were looked at thoroughly and investigated in a consistent way."
Part of the mission of the 21st Century Workforce Task Force — a group that included Cavanaugh, councilmembers Karen Stratton and Candace Mumm and representatives from the city's Human Rights Commission — was to improve the way the city handled harassment. A workplace climate survey conducted by the task force had found that nearly 31.9 percent of the female city employees surveyed said they'd been harassed or bullied due to their gender.
But there was no guarantee that NOW joining the task force would go smoothly. They had previously called for Condon to resign as a result of the Straub scandal.
"Accepting the mayor's 11th-hour settlement offer was one of the toughest decisions I have ever participated in," NOW's Sherry Jones writes in an email. "Should we trust the mayor after all that he had already done?"
Last December, the expanded task force quickly ran into conflict. Cavanaugh planned to hire a local company called Archbright to conduct the city's harassment training, but Jones objected: She'd seen Archbright present about its sexual harassment training and wasn't impressed.
"The presentation was, to me, vague, and the price very high," Jones writes. "When I discovered, during the meeting, that Ms. Cavanaugh had already chosen Archbright, I openly questioned the process and the decision."
Stratton, a frequent critic of the administration, echoed Jones' objections, noting that Archbright now employed Jacobson after her resignation.
Jones, frustrated, even considered restarting the ethics complaint against the mayor.
But then Cavanaugh changed course, deciding that the HR department would conduct harassment training itself: Over the next year, nearly every city employee received training, with HR employees walking them through harassment definitions and scenarios. ("Laughter is cheap," a PowerPoint slide warns, "but lawsuits are expensive.")
To Jones, the decision was a "watershed" moment. From then on, the relationship between NOW and the rest of the committee was amicable.
"I would work with any of them again in a heartbeat," Cavanaugh says.
Cavanaugh says Jones and other NOW members researched harassment policies throughout the country in order to help fix Spokane's policy. The group didn't just want sexual harassment training; it wanted diversity training around issues like race, religion and sexual identity.
"It was a real eye-opener to me to have people who don't work in human resources," Cavanaugh says. She notes how NOW tried to take confusing legal jargon that pervaded the old policy and translate it into something easier to understand.
By June of this year, the draft of the new policy had been completed. It adds a long list of examples of what might be considered sexual harassment, including "verbal abuse," "sexual pranks," sexually suggestive gifts, "repeatedly standing too close to or brushing up against a person," and repeated requests to socialize after work to a person who's made it clear they're not interested.
It defines "complaint" as any "allegation of unwelcome behavior that is sexual in nature," not just one on an official form. It deletes guidance to solve harassment complaints at the "lowest level," which may have discouraged victims from contacting HR directly about harassment. Instead, NOW pushed for the new policy to include multiple ways for employees to file complaints.
"By the time we finished drafting the new policy, a phone hotline and internet complaint system had been added," Jones writes. "I think that if we hadn't been a part of the process, pushing hard for significant change, that those changes would not have occurred."
In the meantime Cavanaugh has tried to improve her department internally. She says the inconsistency problem with HR investigations has been "pretty much eradicated." The department has rolled out new investigative checklists and forms, including a pre-investigation template that lays out the dates, locations, lists of potential witnesses and any records that could establish the facts.
Critics of the city still have concerns. The Center for Justice's Rick Eichstaedt, who represented NOW in their ethics complaint, says the new policy doesn't explicitly protect non-city employees who are being harassed by city staffers.
Stratton still worries that Cavanaugh's union connections — her brother-in-law heads up the biggest union in the city — makes some employees wary of trusting HR with complaints, especially about the union.
Yet Cavanaugh says the number of complaints being filed has been increasing. In 2017, there have been 32 harassment or bullying complaints so far — though only one was about sexual harassment. And she says more complaints is a good thing. It means the training is working: Employees now know what isn't OK and are trusting human resources to fix it.
Only one person so far, she notes, has made an HR complaint through the anonymous hotline.
"I am happy that people are coming forward and complaining," Cavanaugh says. "I am thrilled that people don't need to pick up the hotline to call." ♦