Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a new column called “ER Trips.” Each post will be a new trip into the world of employee relations to provide you with insights to help you avoid tripping over thorny issues at work. The column is written by Kayla Moncayo, an HR professional and self-proclaimed HR fire-breather. Read past pieces by Kayla here.
The public information officer (PIO) called my desk phone six times in a row, back to back while I was in a meeting. As the employee relations professional for a local government agency some years back, I spoke to the PIO only when employee cases became public.
He picked up on the first ring of my return call: “Kayla, the newspaper has submitted a public records request for all sexual assault and sexual harassment claims against County employees in the last 10 years for an article they’re writing. I need to know how bad this is ASAP.”
I spent a week pulling files (yes, paper files) about cases that were well before my time in preparation for my meeting with the PIO. I had one intention for our discussion — to explain how government HR works.
Elected vs Non-Elected Officials
U.S. government HR has two sets of rules for employees based on their classification. Elected officials and non-elected officials have completely different sets of regulations based on this sole fact: Elected officials cannot be fired; they can only be impeached.
This fact was crucial to the PIO’s understanding of the performance management actions taken against alleged perpetrators when reviewing a decade’s worth of accusations.
Put plainly, even if elected officials (such as judges, the chiefs of police, members of the board of supervisors, and even governors) were involved in substantiated claims of sexual harassment, HR was, and is, unable to remove these individuals from their jobs. An IT manager or CFO? They could be disciplined or terminated, but people elected to their jobs are accountable only to taxpayers.
So the questions become: How many elected officials are sexually harassing or assaulting people in the workforce. And how is HR handling such issues?
The Limited Power of HR
The painful answer has been displayed by the Andrew Cuomo sexual harassment investigation and many other high profile cases.
In the 168-page Report of Investigation, a team of investigators substantiated numerous harassment and assault allegations against Gov. Cuomo. From grabbing women’s breasts to directly retaliating against women that brought forth allegations, there are decades of textbook harassment, assault, and retaliation described. Some of which occurred as recently as 2020 — and some which were brought to HR. The report states:
“The alleged sex-based harassment by the Governor did not occur in a vacuum, and the allegations of women who have worked in the Executive Chamber cannot be understood or assessed without the context of the overall workplace culture…It became clear during our interviews with the complainants and other witnesses that the overall work culture and environment was relevant to important aspects of our findings, including how the Governor appeared to believe he never behaved inappropriately, as well as the complainants’ willingness, delay, and sometimes refusal to report inappropriate conduct within the Executive Chamber.”
Let’s be clear. The New York State Human Resources Department absolutely knew of Cuomo’s actions and the “hostile work environment” in which employees were working for decades.
And HR was powerless…nearly.
The U.S. government has created a system of removing power from HR professionals and enabling elected officials of any government entity to create independent and unsupervised cultures. Cultures where employees under the charge of HR are most susceptible to abuse and neglect due to untouchable leadership. Cultures like the one I left when an elected official asked me to shred an investigation I personally completed, where allegations of sexual harassment were substantiated.
Impacting HR Beyond Your Own Org
So what can be done about the epidemic of toxic government workplace cultures?
As citizens, you have access to the exact same information the local newspaper requested from me when I was the employee relations professional for a U.S. County. You can get involved by recognizing your vote does not just impact policies but employees who have to work for elected officials.
As HR professionals, you can get loud. You should get loud.
Gather every HR professional in your local area, pour over employee relation documentation you requested from your city, county, or state, and go to the local newspaper with what you’ve found. Explain the HR and legal jargon used in these cases to reporters. Email your elected officials demanding answers to your questions about specific cases.
HR professionals can alter the lives of employees outside of their own workforces by activating their employee advocacy for government teams.