York County adopts new harassment policy after past allegations

York County has adopted new rules to combat workplace harassment, in reaction to past complaints against a longtime projects manager who ultimately resigned.

The York County Council unanimously approved a new anti-harassment policy Monday, the first formal update to the county’s rules on workplace behavior in more than 20 years.

“Without a doubt, it’s a step in the right direction,” County Manager Bill Shanahan said Wednesday. “The specific things we’re looking at, the policy is tested and successful.”

The new policy details how county employees – whether they are subjected to harassment themselves or just witness it – can and should report workplace harassment. County officials will investigate every claim of harassment, according to the policy.

The policy specifies that employers can be sued if employees are harassed at work, the allegations are well-founded, and nothing is done after a report is made.

At Monday’s council meeting, the policy didn’t win approval without some discussion. Some council members expressed concern about the breadth of some of the language in the policy, specifically questioning whether “brushing against another person” could be classed as sexual harassment.

But Shanahan said the policy was well-considered, and county staff were able to alleviate the council’s concerns.

“We basically took the policy we have now, and our staff looked over it and came up with ideas based on our experience, then ran that by (county attorney) Michael Kendree and the personnel attorney that we use.”

The new policy was adopted just weeks after the former manager of the county’s “Pennies for Progress” road improvement program resigned amid allegations from co-workers that he made “inappropriate” and “suggestive” comments.

Phil Leazer had been with York County for 26 years prior to an April investigation by the county’s human resources department into the allegations. He headed 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.

Leazer told the Herald he “jokingly” made remarks that offended a co-worker, for which he apologized. In other instances, he said his actions were misinterpreted. He told the Herald he already was considering other job opportunities before the complaints were filed.

The new policy will explicitly address joking, among other behaviors. 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.

This was the first change to the county’s harassment policy since 1993, although Shanahan, who became county manager in 2013, said some of the current changes were first made as part of an internal review of the county’s human resources policy last year.

“Some of the old ordinances and policies, we want to go through them at least once a year just to see how they’re doing,” he said.

In addition to the new policy, county supervisors are undergoing training sessions on workplace harassment, and the relevant personnel will soon get a course in “harassment investigations,” Shanahan said. This is in addition to annual training seminars department heads and other employees are required to attend.

“These will cover the kind of leadership we expect from our supervisors day-to-day in how they handle things,” Shanahan said. “Leadership isn’t bullying.”

Bristow Marchant •  803-329-4062

Related stories from Rock Hill Herald