By Laura Kushner
Sexual harassment is a hot topic in the national news right now. If you think this is an issue only for Hollywood or high-profile state and federal politicians, think again. There are lessons that all employers can learn from the many situations being reported on both here and around the country.
A recent case from the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MDHR) website highlights a city employee’s complaint to her employer, alleging that her supervisor touched her inappropriately, made a sexual reference about her body, and inquired about her private life.
In addition to the complaint about the harassment, she also alleged retaliation: being denied training opportunities, overtime pay, holiday pay, and reimbursement for mileage. In her next performance review after the complaint, her supervisor allegedly brought up accusations of lateness and other scheduling issues—concerns her supervisor allegedly had never mentioned prior to the review.
MDHR found there was sufficient evidence to show the employee had experienced a series of adverse employment actions as a result of her charge of sexual harassment and that these actions negatively impacted her employment. In a settlement, the employer agreed to pay $60,000 to the employee and her attorney, and to provide its employees with training on the Minnesota Human Rights Act’s prohibition on gender discrimination and on reprisal and retaliation.
Don’t let this happen in your workplace
You can take steps to prevent a similar situation from happening in your city. With this topic in the daily news right now, there is a lot of free advice out there, much of it from reputable sources. Here are a few common themes worth noting:
1. Create a strong anti-harassment policy.
It’s important to have a strong policy, including a clear process for responding to harassment. Enforce it without exception. You may not end up handling every situation in the exact same manner (some complaints require more immediate and serious action than others), but you should decide on a process to use and follow it every time.
Make sure you have several individuals who can receive employees’ reports of harassment. That gives employees options in case the person they would normally submit a report to is the harasser.
2. Respond immediately and investigate every claim of harassment.
We are all subject to biases and often don’t see those biases when it comes to people we like. It’s critical to investigate all complaints; don’t ignore the ones made against your favorite co-workers. Not every investigation will require an outside investigator, but it’s something you should always consider at the outset of a situation.
3. Monitor the workplace.
Don’t allow inappropriate jokes, emails, and pictures to slide by. Supervisors should set the example by handling these types of situations as soon as they come up. Remember, sexual harassment is not allowed even after hours or outside the workplace, such as at a local bar, out-ofstate conference, or on social media.
4. Train employees.
It’s important to train all employees (especially supervisors) on how to prevent and report sexual harassment. Having a great policy won’t do the city much good if nobody knows what it says. Make sure all employees know where to find the policy, how to follow it, and where to get help.
Give examples of sexual harassment that go beyond the technical definition. For example, gender stereotyping can sometimes be seen by courts as sexual harassment. If a co-worker is harassed for being transgender, that could constitute sexual harassment in the eyes of the law. Minnesota law also prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
5. Make it clear that retaliation won’t be tolerated.
Check back in with employees who have complained to make sure they aren’t experiencing any retaliation, especially if the complaint was made against their direct supervisor or anyone with authority over them. Make sure supervisors understand they can be disciplined, up to and including termination, for retaliating against an employee who has made a complaint of sexual harassment.
6. Don’t be sidetracked by stereotypes.
Remember, sexual harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances. The victim as well as the harasser may be a woman or a man, and harassment can occur between opposite sexes, as well as male-to- male and female-to-female.
The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or a non-employee, including an elected official. The victim does not have to be the person harassed, but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
Laura Kushner is human resources director with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 281-1203.
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