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Free Library staff complain of workplace bias, harassment

Nearly 83 percent in a December survey said they had experienced racism, homophobia, trans-phobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, or another micro-aggression. Then the survey was taken down.

The Free Library of Philadelphia at the Philadelphia City Institute.
The Free Library of Philadelphia at the Philadelphia City Institute.Read moreHeather Khalifa / File Photograph

The Free Library of Philadelphia brands itself as a diverse, inclusive space for all.

But when a survey posted online in December asking staffers whether they had experienced or observed bias in the workplace, nearly 60 employees replied anonymously to the online forum, detailing stories of harassment, discrimination and prejudice. After a few hours, and at the request of Free Library president Siobhan Reardon, the survey was taken down.

Last week, the librarians’ union resurfaced the survey. This time, replies surged to more than 100, and the concerns were much the same: Survey respondents described instances of homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, biased hiring and placement practices, and a tedious reporting process that ended with little or no outcome.

One supervisor, a white woman, told someone she wished she were black and gay because she thought she would be more promotable, a respondent wrote, according to a copy obtained by The Inquirer.

Another wrote: “During my implicit bias training I sat next to some who made it very clear they thought the training was worthless and that they did not agree with what was said.”

In a statement, Reardon called the responses “deeply concerning," and said the library strives to prioritize diversity and inclusion, and takes “any incidents or behavior that conflict with that very seriously.”

She noted that system-wide staff training and workshops were implemented in 2017. "We can do better and will always strive to be better to ensure that our team of more than 600 employees is treating our customers, and each other, with compassion and equity,” she wrote.

But one librarian said a diversity training occurred only last fall. During that training, “several staff talked about the bias they endured,” and afterward someone created the survey.

“I expected the library administrators to follow up on the issues that were brought up in the training, but after that nothing else happened,” said the staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

The December survey comes as library administrators prepare to go before City Council to make their case for more funding, and follows an unsteady fall for the 54-branch system, where branches were shuttered daily due to staff shortages and facility emergencies.

In early March, Mayor Jim Kenney presented a budget that calls for the library system to receive an additional $2.5 million in next year’s budget to hire additional staff for six-day service and address facilities emergencies.

The system has 803 employees, about 460 of them librarians, according to 2018 city payroll data. Of the workforce, 391 employees are black; 351 are white; 27 are Asian, 24 are Hispanic or Latino; and six are biracial. But payroll data showed that minorities tended to be in subordinate or maintenance roles.

Five librarians who spoke with the Inquirer about the survey — under the same conditions of anonymity — described observing harassment between staff; and a lack of transparency and follow-through in addressing acts by administrators.

The survey, “was unfortunately affirming. … But it was also just deeply disturbing,” one said.

In December, 86 percent of the survey respondents said they had experienced or observed racial bias at work. Nearly 83 percent said they had experienced racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, or another microaggression. Sexism wasn’t listed as a potential form of harassment, but some respondents cited such incidents.

Of the 58 initial respondents, 72 percent were black, 19 percent were white, and 9 percent were either Asian or identified as other. Nearly 64 percent were female, nearly 26 percent were male, and about 10 percent were either nonbinary or did not indicate.

>> READ MORE: As Mayor Kenney prepares to deliver budget address, Philadelphia Free Library asks for $15 million more

City Councilwoman Cindy Bass, who reviewed the survey results, said she’s “very disturbed about the level of service and … about the way people are treated.”

Bass also said she was disappointed to learn that library administrators took no disciplinary action regarding an incident in which an employee allegedly “made reprehensible comments.”

“In email notes that were provided to us, Ms. Reardon said that there was no excuse for the terrible comments that this person made but that there was going to be no disciplinary action taken whatsoever,” Bass said. “So that speaks to me about a larger problem about the culture within the library system. …”

Bass said she is drafting a letter to library leadership and also intends to raise questions at the library’s upcoming budget hearing.

Both city and library policies forbid the type of behavior described in many of the survey responses.

The library’s customer-service policy says librarians are expected to treat each other with the same courtesy and respect they would members of the public. Staff should provide efficient, accurate, and friendly service to everyone, the policy says.

The city’s sexual harassment policy, which also covers other types of harassment, states that “stereotyping or offensive comments that denigrate or insult someone because of their protected class” is prohibited. It also says "manager and supervisors are responsible to maintain a work environment that is free from harassment and discrimination, and therefore are responsible for the conduct of their subordinates and nonemployees present in the workplace.”

“Any manager or supervisor’s failure to affirmatively act to comply with this responsibility may result in discipline,” it says.

The library has faced allegations of harassment or discrimination before. At least three former employees have filed civil rights lawsuits in recent years. Two were unsuccessful.

But a former staffer, Bobbie Burnett, won a $382,500 settlement from the city in June 2014 after saying in a lawsuit that she endured “continuous, pervasive and outrageous discrimination, harassment and hostile workplace policies and practices for more than seven years,” following gender reassignment surgery.

“It was a disgrace,” said her lawyer, Jack Beavers. “The city and the library just did not try to control its employees or give her any kind of accommodation. Anytime she made a complaint … they transferred her farther and farther away from her house.”

In a filing before settling the case, city lawyers contended that Burnett failed to prove sex-stereotyping discrimination.

But Burnett’s claims drew the interest of civil rights prosecutors in Washington. In a legal filing seeking to intervene in the case, the Department of Justice wrote that Burnett had “presented sufficient gender stereotyping evidence," to prove that her discrimination and harassment was “because of … sex.”