Sexual harassment has not been a widespread problem in Orange County government, according to a review of investigations prompted by an Orlando Sentinel story detailing a titillating scandal in the county’s human-resources division.
County risk manager John Petrelli and human-resources manager Ricardo Daye laid out county protocols for handling employee complaints of unwanted sexual advances or other conduct defined as sexual harassment.
Commissioner Emily Bonilla sought the “open discussion” Tuesday in a memo to fellow commissioners. She said she wanted assurances the county was following “best practices,” especially in wake of the newspaper story that outlined a county investigation into alleged violations of workplace rules in the HR division.
“Everything can be improved on,” Bonilla said.
The investigation, concluded in April, was launched after a female intern learned a female co-worker shot secret photos of her from behind in 2017 and shared them with men during a Facebook chat in which they discussed the intern’s appearance.
The social-media banter took place on county time.
The investigation also cited unacceptable work-place conduct that included an HR supervisor mimicking a former intern’s physical disability and another HR employee filming herself masturbating at her desk.
As a result of the probe, which led to the supervisor’s demotion and suspension of two other employees, the University of Central Florida said it would no longer allow students to work as interns in the HR division.
Daye said the county’s sexual harassment ordinance has been in place for 25 years and was upgraded in 2006.
All new employees receive sexual-harassment training and managers get ongoing training, Daye said.
Petrelli said he reviewed all 33 sexual-harassment investigations conducted by the Office of Professional Standards between July 2018 and December 2010 — when Mayor Teresa Jacobs’ tenure began — and 16 found no violation by the accused.
The other 17 resulted in “sustained findings” — although 15 were for “non-sexual-harassment type issues.”
Petrelli said Florida case law shows sexual harassment generally must be “severe and pervasive.”
“So a single comment or maybe an off-color joke does not rise to that level,” he said.
Petrelli said those comments or actions often result in a violation of a lesser workplace-rule requiring employees “to direct and coordinate their efforts to establish and maintain the highest level of efficiency and morale.”
According to county summaries of the two cases determined to violate the sexual-harassment policy, one involved a supervisor who was terminated for ogling a subordinate and the other involved a supervisor who resigned after a subordinate broke off a three-month relationship and then complained he continued to push for sexual favors and alluded to an open position that she would be good for.
The probe detailed in the newspaper story didn’t result in a finding of sexual harassment because the female employee who was the focus of the investigation resigned her HR position before the internal review was finished.
She took a job with the Orange County Comptroller’s Office but resigned in June after the story came to light.
Bonilla said her call for the discussion was prompted partly by a line in the 32-page Professional Standards report quoting a suspended employee as suggesting lurid social-media chats at work were common among county employees.
The mayor said she, too, was bothered by that.
Jacobs said she then listened closely to an audio recording of the employee’s interview and concluded the investigator had “inartfully” reported the remarks. Last month, according to a county memo, the investigative summary was amended, striking the phrase “although he proffered it was common practice among County employees.”
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