Widespread recent press coverage about sexual harassment in the military, race discrimination in corporations and threats of workplace violence have me worried about the liability of my county government as an employer. Does the county face the same liabilities? If so, what can we do to limit them as county officials?
Concerned NACo member
Thanks for raising two important questions directly relevant to EVERY one of America's more than 3000 counties. Not only do the potential liabilities you read about in private companies apply to counties (and cities, school districts or special districts, for that matter), but there are even greater risks for us.
Counties have a special responsibility to deliver services in keeping with high ethical standards of public trust. We serve vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly and the frail. Our employees are often entrusted with enforcement powers, and in the case of sheriff's deputies and others, the means to use deadly force if necessary.
This adds to our risks in managing a public work force. It also makes opportunities to apply proactive human resources management to limit or control these liabilities all the more important. Here are some ideas about what to do:
· Recognize the liabilities and understand that the risks cannot be ignored. The county which doesn't invest in clear policies and a "zero tolerance" approach to unlawful discrimination and threats of violence only adds to its own risks.
· Ensure that all managers and supervisors and, indeed, all employees, receive Initial and follow-up training about the county's policies, their individual responsibilities to prevent unlawful or inappropriate behavior at work, and the procedures the county will take to investigate and, if necessary, correct such situations.
Encourage county HR professionals to participate with their colleagues from around the county in NACHRA - the National Association of County Human Resource Administrators, a NACo affiliate.
No matter what "brand" of liability we are speaking about, it is clear that prompt and effective action to intervene, investigate and follow up on allegations of discrimination, harassment or threats of violence is by far the best course of action for county officials to take.
The common thread in these behaviors is the perpetrators' lack of respect for other people. It is not ironic that people who engage in one form of inappropriate behavior, such as threatening or bullying behavior at work, are also likely to engage in other such behaviors like sexual harassment.
By being proactive in one area, we help ourselves and our counties by reducing liabilities in all HR areas.
(HR Doctor was written by Phil Rosenberg, director of Human Resources, Broward County, Fla.)