Workplace sexual harassment is more in the spotlight than ever, but one place where there’s almost no light on the subject is in state government.
No one tracks how often employees across North Carolina’s state agencies are disciplined for sexually harassing their co-workers.
That makes it difficult to answer questions like:
- Is sexual harassment a problem in the state workforce, or relatively rare?
- Is there more harassment being reported than in the past, or less?
- Have disciplined employees been caught repeating the same type of conduct, at the same agency or a different one?
- Are there certain agencies, or even offices within agencies, where sexual harassment is a bigger issue than elsewhere?
Hundreds of thousands of people work for the state directly or indirectly – either as state employees, public school teachers, university faculty and staff, or private contractors who work with government agencies.
If any agency were to track harassment being committed by or against all those people, it would be the Office of State Human Resources. But it doesn’t. OSHR spokeswoman Melody Hunter-Pillion said it’s impossible under the current system of how state workers are disciplined and reported.
“Even if it came to us it would just depend on how that particular agency coded it,” she said. “Is it coded sexual harassment, or just personal misconduct? Because if it’s coded as personal misconduct it could be many different things.”
Last month, according to data from the state, 13 employees were disciplined for personal conduct issues. Nine were fired and the other four were demoted. There’s no indication what they did to get in trouble. State records don’t detail whether their cases involved any type of harassment, sexual or otherwise.
Hunter-Pillion said it is possible that some individual agencies or departments track sexual harassment, but the state’s main HR office isn’t aware of any that do.
There’s also no way for any member of the public to create such a database, since the state is allowed to keep information about personnel issues secret.
That only changes if the person sues to get his or her job back, since court files are typically public.
That’s what led to a recent News & Observer article about a prison supervisor who was fired earlier this year after some of the female officers under his command complained about him touching himself in front of them, making lewd comments and more.
That sergeant, Bernard Robinson, went to court to get his job back. A judge affirmed the firing in September, but Robinson continues to deny the allegations and is appealing his firing again.
But even when people like Robinson appeal and open up their cases to the public eye, it’s not possible to digitally search documents at the Office of Administrative Hearings (which is where those appeals begin) for relevant terms like ‘sexual harassment.’
The only way to find out about such cases is by word-of-mouth – or by browsing through hundreds of legal rulings, one by one.
Hunter-Pillion said the state mandates that every new employee receive an informational packet on avoiding sexual harassment.
The state’s HR rules also make it clear that: “All employees have the right to be free from discrimination and harassing conduct. No State employee shall engage in conduct that falls under the definition of unlawful workplace harassment, including sexual harassment, discrimination or retaliation.”
Any further training or emphasis on preventing sexual harassment is optional and up to individual state agencies, Hunter-Pillion said.
Individual agencies are also allowed to have different rules for investigating complaints of HR violations such as sexual harassment. Those investigations, including the one into Robinson, are led by each agency’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office.
“The process (of tracking sexual harassment) is really decentralized because each agency would handle any grievances of that type,” she said. “Of course they have EEO guidance from us, but they have their own EEO policy and plans.”
In Robinson’s case, two of his four accusers went to the agency Equal Employment Opportunity Office to file complaints. The other two only broke their silence once approached by investigators. One said she feared retaliation; the other said she simply didn’t think anything would be done.