York County, SC, revising sexual harassment policy in wake of employee resignation

York County government offices in downtown York.
York County government offices in downtown York. Bristow Marchant

York County plans to beef up its workplace anti-harassment policy and give employees another round of training – the county’s latest response to alleged sexual harassment that contributed to a longtime employee resigning amid complaints from co-workers.

The York County Council likely will vote on changes to the anti-harassment policy Monday night. The policy was last changed in 1993.

Last month, county officials mandated re-training for supervisors and government managers about workplace harassment, including sexual harassment. The nearly four hours of supplemental training were held in addition to York County’s annual training for all employees and the standard new employee training.

Improving the policy is the next step, York County Manager Bill Shanahan told The Herald on Friday.

New language in the policy makes it more clear, he said, “that the county does not tolerate this at any time.” He added, “You don’t want any gray areas.”

After the employee resigned last month, the county asked legal experts and others to review current policy and asked, “Can we do this better,” Shanahan said. From those recommendations, the new policy was drafted.

The proposed policy details how employees can and should report workplace harassment – even if they are a witness and not subjected to the harassment themselves. County officials will investigate every claim of harassment, according to the policy.

Employers can be sued if employees are harassed at work, the allegations are founded, and nothing is done after a report is made, according to the new policy. Shanahan said he’s not aware of any outstanding legal problems for York County related to sexual or workplace harassment.

Specialized training is on the way for York County senior officials and human resources employees to learn how to best investigate claims of employee harassment.

New policy includes jokes

An HR investigation was done in April into claims made against the county’s former Pennies for Progress manager. Phil Leazer resigned about five weeks ago amid allegations from co-workers that he made “inappropriate” and “suggestive” comments.

Leazer was in charge of one of the area’s most visible government programs: The voter-approved Pennies program is York County’s funding arm for building roads, relying on local sales tax money.

Complaints against him were part of the reason for leaving after 26 years with the county, but he wasn’t forced to resign, Leazer told The Herald last month. He says he already was considering other job opportunities before the complaints were filed with York County’s human resources department.

In some of the complaints,Leazer he acknowledged he jokingly made remarks that offended a co-worker, but he apologized. In response to other allegations, he says his actions or jokes were misinterpreted by co-workers.

If approved, York County’s new policy would specifically address joking behavior.

The policy states that prohibited behaviors include “explicit sexual propositions, sexual innuendo, suggestive comments, sexually oriented kidding or teasing, practical jokes, jokes about gender-specific traits, foul or obscene language or gestures, displays of foul or obscene printed or visual material, put-downs or condescending or derisive comments or terms based on gender, and physical conduct, such as patting, pinching, or brushing against another person.”

If an employee complains about such behavior, the behavior will be considered “unwelcome,” according to the policy. “Unwelcome” sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other types of similar conduct constitute sexual harassment under the policy.

York County has nearly 1,100 employees, making it one of the area’s largest employers. Those workers, Shanahan said, are York County’s “most valuable asset.”

‘Right thing to do’

All employees have a right to be respected and not be subjected to any type of harassment at work, Shanahan said. He added that he and the county’s elected officials have taken recent anti-harassment training and policy reviews seriously.

Taking steps to ensure the workplace is harassment-free is the “right thing to do” for employees, Shanahan said, and it benefits the organization. Productivity is negatively impacted when people are unhappy, feel harassed, or feel disrespected, he said.

Anti-harassment re-training for managers has been “enlightening,” Shanahan said.

And it served as a reminder that while working for the county “almost feels like home,” it’s not. “We’re in a professional environment,” he said.

Over recent weeks, county officials have not found evidence of widespread harassment problems in county offices, Shanahan said. “But if it was happening in one place, that’s one place too many.”

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068