Updated 2:28 p.m.

Over the past year, the growing #MeToo movement has contributed to a general increased awareness of sexual harassment and assault. Philadelphia municipal government is no exception.

The city announced Thursday morning a handful of updates to its policy on sexual harassment in the workplace, which dictates how the city responds to complaints of sexual harassment and assault among its own employees.

The updates will affect how roughly 30,000 city employees can report sexual harassment, plus how they’re trained to prevent it.

Here are the most notable changes coming to city policy.

Report harassment anytime, anywhere

All city employees — that’s everyone from the mayor to each city sanitation worker — will soon be able to report instances of sexual harassment and assault through an online reporting system, set to go live on the city website Thursday.

Before the policy change, city employees were required to report sexual harassment in person, either to their department’s supervisor or human relations manager, to the citywide ERU or to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

With the addition of online reporting, city employees can still report sexual harassment to their department supervisors or HR managers. This just adds another option.

“Most of our workforce has a mobile device,” noted Christine Derenick-Lopez, the city’s chief administrative officer.

“If they experience something in that moment, they can go onto their mobile device on the city’s website and file a complaint directly through the city’s website.”

A rendering of the online sexual harassment reporting system Credit: Courtesy City of Philadelphia

This method is expected to increase accountability among city officials to actually investigate claims of sexual harassment.

In years past, independent city departments have been found to mishandle claims of sexual assault. The online reporting method will prevent that in the future, according to Jane Slusser, Mayor Jim Kenney’s chief of staff, because it will send the claim directly to the ERU, which will monitor the status of the report and ensure an investigation has begun within 90 days.

“It’s actually something we see centrally,” Slusser explained. With the new method, “if you don’t see any movement in the system, you know the HR manager isn’t dealing with it, and you intervene much sooner” — instead of never knowing it was filed in the first place. “That’s a big difference between how it’s handled now,” she said.

Philly isn’t the first city to try this method — back in April, Los Angeles implemented an online reporting system for its city employees — but it’s among those leading the pack.

Making sure everyone gets trained

Then there are the changes to how city employees are trained to prevent sexual harassment.

Under the updated policy:

  • All city employees will undergo sexual harassment prevention training once they’re hired, and then again every three years.
  • Trainings will include new information, including suggestions for handling investigations, LGBTQ sensitivity and bystander intervention.

As they were, Philadelphia’s sexual harassment laws mandated the city train all its employees in prevention as soon as they’re hired, and it required management be trained again every five years.

There were a few problems with those rules, per Slusser.

“We realized that five years is a long time to go,” she said. “You could actually make it through an entire administration not being required to take that training.”

And the onboarding requirements are only three years old, so the employees hired before 2015 may have never received sexual harassment prevention training at all.

“A sanitation worker who was hired in 2000, they may not have received the training,” Derenick-Lopez said. “Our strategy is going to correct that.”

Per usual, it takes time to completely roll out a new policy — especially when it requires training every single person employed by the City of Philadelphia. The proposed timeline:

  • Fall 2018: Updated training provided for HR managers and departmental leadership
  • Spring 2019: Online trainings implemented for all city employees with access to a computer at work (all employees in this phase expected to be trained within a month)
  • Fall 2019: In-person trainings provided for city employees without computer access (may take until the end of 2019 to complete)

City officials chose purposefully to start at the management level. As Tracey Bryant, Philly’s director of training and recruiting, said: “This is where you start when you’re serious about a culture change.”

How’d we get here?

Updates to city policy were first inspired by Sozi Tulante, a former city solicitor who recommended Philly investigate its sexual harassment reporting system back in 2016, according to Slusser.

Recently, the policy has faced more scrutiny — from journalists, from city councilmembers and from City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart.

City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart announced an audit of Philly’s sexual harassment reporting system in March. Credit: RebeccaforPhiladelphia.com

In March, Rhynhart opened up a private phone line that city employees could use to discuss their past reporting experiences. She called it the first step in a wide-ranging performance audit of the city’s sexual harassment policies and procedures.

Rhynhart’s final report was released to the public on the same day Philly announced its updated policy. The audit focused mostly on updating the city’s procedures for reporting and investigating sexual harassment, Slusser said, so that’s what the city set out to adapt.

“We were ready to think about where some of our weak spots might be,” Slusser said. “Most of the recommendations really seemed to line up with some of the things we already identified. Both processes really complemented each other.”

But Rhynhart said at a Thursday press conference that she wasn’t satisfied with Philly’s updated policy.

Rhynhart said city officials ignored two of her most important recommendations: they didn’t centralize sexual harassment resources into one office, and they didn’t create written guidelines for investigations.

For his part, Mayor Jim Kenney said he’s open to updating the policy further — he’d especially like to expand the city’s Employee Relations Unit to be able to centralize resources.

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...