In 2016, state investigators found that a New York City Parks Department supervisor, Jeffrey Blount, had pressured a woman employee into having sex with him, threatening to fire her unless she agreed. According to the New York Times, this was not the only time investigators found that Blount had sexually abused and harassed women whom he supervised. Instead of being fired, he was allowed to resign, and as part of his agreement with the city, officials promised not to mention his history of sexual abuse and harassment to any prospective future employer—a common practice that allows abusers like Blount to continue to find work, potentially putting other unsuspecting coworkers at risk.
Blount was not the only New York City employee who, after being found to have sexually harassed fellow workers, was allowed to resign with few consequences for their future employment prospects. Per the Times:
In at least three other cases in which employees were pushed out because of substantiated sexual harassment allegations in recent years, the city agreed to conceal the behavior from future employers who might inquire as part of a reference check.
In the three cases, all at the Department of Parks and Recreation, investigators determined that the employees had sexually harassed co-workers, and officials moved to have them fired.
The men challenged their dismissals but ultimately agreed to resign after securing assurances that the city would provide a “neutral reference” to prospective employers seeking information. If asked, city officials would verify only basic details, such as employment dates, job title and description.
According to attorney Richard Washington, who represented the Parks Department employees, these types of agreements are common in situations where employees resign due to misconduct.
Blount’s example is a telling case study in how power imbalances enable fucked up behavior and how few consequences exist for employees found to have sexually harassed their coworkers. According to the Times, Makeda Stevenson was a seasonal worker for the Parks Department through a welfare-to-work program (incidentally, these programs have long been criticized for failing to provide real opportunities for job training, instead providing people with low-wage jobs). Stevenson told the Times that she feared Blount would retaliate against her if she did not agree to his demands; in one instance, Blount even tracked her down after she was moved to a different job site. “I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize my job because I do have to take care of my son, too,” she said.
It seems she did eventually file a complaint. This is what happened next:
After Ms. Stevenson’s accusations were substantiated, the parks department moved to fire Mr. Blount; he fought back, and took the case to the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings, where he could have forced a trial.
The city entered into a negotiation and Mr. Blount agreed to resign after securing the stipulation that the city would provide a neutral referral to any potential employer — essentially agreeing to conceal Mr. Blount’s history of repeated harassment allegations.
While the Parks Department’s general counsel, Alessandro Olivieri, defended the city’s agreement with Blount, saying to the Times, “I would not describe a neutral evaluation as hiding anything,” it’s clear that these kinds of arrangements allow abusers to hide their behavior and find employment elsewhere. As Stevenson, one of Blount’s victims, put it, “People should know what type of person he is because he’s going to continue to do it.”
History is rife with examples of internal investigations into workplace misconduct that then brushed the alleged harasser’s misconduct under the rug. Workers like Stevenson, who are employed as park cleaners through the department’s workfare program, euphemistically named the Parks Opportunity Program, are particularly vulnerable to abuse by their managers. So many women have filed sexual harassment complaints in recent years that in 2017, the city opened an investigation:
In response to that investigation, parks officials agreed to make improvements, including to seek more severe penalties in sexual harassment cases and to create “a watch list of employees with histories of sexual harassment allegations.” The letter did not address the practice of guaranteeing neutral references to harassers who resign.
What’s the city’s defense of this practice? According to spokesperson Olivia Lapeyrolerie, it’s meant to protect the person who files the complaint, and city officials enter agreements to provide neutral job references only, she told the Times, “in rare instances when they believe any other route could compromise the confidentiality of the complainant.” This is a suspect argument—given that Stevenson had filed a lawsuit against Blount and the city (making her case public) before he was allowed to resign, it doesn’t exactly hold water.
Moving forward, Lapeyrolerie told the Times, the city would move “to establish more uniform protocols that promote transparency and accountability.”