Don’t you wish there was a guaranteed strategy for keeping your city free from one of the most scandalous headlines of the day? What if you could, just by doing X, using training program Y or making elected officials and public employees sign form Z, ensure that allegations of sexual harassment won’t distract you from your usual agenda?
Even though laws defining and prohibiting sexual harassment have been around for quite some time, Sonya Madison, an attorney with Counsel on Call in Atlanta, Ga., said that some of the circumstances that create the problem will never go away.
“People are in an environment where they’re together and interacting eight or nine hours a day. Relationships develop. We just stress that it be of the appropriate kind.”
Individuals will always exist who just don’t understand why approaching a subordinate in any kind of a sexual manner is consequential, Madison said. The object of their intentions isn’t always a subordinate anyway. For some men, viewing the women in their workplace as equals is difficult; and this perpetually subordinate view of women increases the likelihood of an inappropriate sexual advance.
The city of San Diego, Calif., is only the latest government office to face this type of scandal. Mayor Bob Filner resigned Aug. 30 after 18 women brought accusations of sexual harassment against him. Projections are that the city will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, up to about $3 million, to make things right.
Municipalities of all sizes have found themselves facing the same sticky situation.
Kelly Zielinski is a business unit manager for Target Solutions technology company in San Diego, which manufactures online sexual harassment training solutions. She felt that city leaders and risk managers across the country would be wise to recognize the impact of what is happening there.
“These kinds of events can be devastating to an organization. Not just in legal damages, but lost and unproductive work hours and employee morale,” she pointed out. The bigger the city, the more likely the offender’s and the municipality’s perceived wealth will encourage recalcitrant victims to come forward. The improving economy is also reducing the impact of losing one’s job. That fear is one reason victims of sexual harassment sometimes decline to come forward.
Soon after the accusations against Filner became public, he began to admit a measure of guilt — but with a twist. According to Target Solutions, Filner and his lawyer, Harvey Berger, tried to place the burden of fault back on the city itself for not providing him with sexual harassment training as required under California Government Code Section 12940(k).
In a recent press release, Target Solutions noted: “As absurd as Filner may seem, Berger makes a salient point. Sexual harassment is a serious issue for public and private entities across the country. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, there are more than 11,000 charges of harassment each year. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates businesses lose approximately $1 billion to these incidents on an annual basis.”
“Having conducted sexual harassment training many times over the years, I have learned that many — if not most — people do not know what is and what is not illegal sexual harassment under California law,” Berger wrote in a July 29 letter to San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith. “There is a very, very good reason for mandatory sexual harassment training; if nothing else it makes people think about the subject, and how they interact with their fellow employees. Had the city provided mandatory sexual harassment training to Mayor Filner, Irene McCormack Jackson may never have brought her lawsuit.”
While there’s no way to prevent every employee from making bad decisions, there are ways to minimize the financial and public fallout and to regain the public’s trust.
Madison suggested that supervisors and department heads pay attention to both rumors and substantiated claims of sexual harassment in the applicant’s past.
Unfortunately, with elected officials that sort of vetting can only be done by the voting public.
Having a procedure in place for dealing with allegations is the next step that should be taken, Madison said. “How committed you are as an organization to trying to prevent this, and to following through on claims, is a big deterrent.”
Train employees, department heads and elected officials alike on what constitutes sexual harassment, how allegations will be investigated and what potential consequences may be, she advised — and enforce it. Don’t sit on claims: nor should the person taking the report give any indication whether or not the claim can be substantiated. “Write it down, make no comments and then do your homework to see if it can be substantiated.” “There are tools for preventing these types of costly incidents,” Zielinski said. “Hopefully decision makers like Filner will understand what’s at stake. Comprehensive, engaging training can make a huge difference by reducing liability and eliminating unnecessary claims like the city of San Diego is currently facing.”