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Workplace sexual harassment gets renewed attention as high-profile figures are accused in media reports

FARGO—A paragraph in an employee handbook isn't much, but Lisa Edison-Smith said some employers may have become "complacent" into thinking that's enough to address sexual harassment.

That could change with recent allegations leveled against everyone from entertainment personalities like Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K. to U.S. Senate nominee from Alabama Roy Moore and Minnesota state Sen. Dan Schoen.

The employment law attorney and shareholder at Fargo's Vogel Law Firm said it's time to rethink the status quo to protect employees from harassment and their employers from financial liability.

Edison-Smith said it's been decades since the public saw high-profile court cases that dealt with workplace sexual harassment in the 1980s and '90s, cases that prompted organizations to roll out strict policies and intensive training.

"Then, they kind of went to sleep on it," she said.

A 'virus'

Edison-Smith said businesses need to care about sexual harassment because it can be "extremely expensive" if they lose a lawsuit after not doing enough to stop it.

That's why she advises clients to require thorough training for all employees, managers and CEOs included. Policies also need to clearly outline how to report harassment and what happens next, as well as consequences.

But she said it's more than just a matter of liability, and the extra effort to let employees know they're heard and valued will lead to a more productive workplace.

"It's a win-win for everybody," she said.

Sarah Andrews Herman, a member of Dorsey & Whitney LLP's Trial and Labor Employment Practice Groups, said she's worked on these issues with employers for 40 years. She said employers have long been concerned because of the potential for expensive claims.

Not all sexual harassment allegations are the same, she said. There are cases of "quid pro quo" when someone, usually a boss or supervisor, requires something of an employee in exchange for a promotion or keeping their job.

That's often easier to spot than allegations of a "hostile work environment," which can range from an employee's concern about a co-worker's racy poster to persistent and seriously damaging behavior that interferes with their ability to do the job.

Hostile environment claims often come down to a matter of interpretation, she said. One employee may be greatly offended by jokes their co-worker insists aren't offensive, so she recommends employees act as if they're going to church, not getting together with buddies, when they get to work.

Herman said employers have to make sure their reporting process includes a fast but thorough investigation, something that can help victims while also getting to the truth of a false accusation. Harassment is like a "virus" in the workplace, she said, and that's why it's an important topic to think about.

"If you let it start in your company, it grows, and your company gets more and more infected and ill," she said. "If you keep it clean and out of there, it stays that way, but you've got to keep watching."

Empowerment

Stephanie Schafer, an employee assistance program counselor with The Village Family Service Center in Fargo, said she works with victims of harassment as well as instigators of harassment referred by their employer.

She said victims often have emotional reactions that need to be identified and affirmed, including feelings of embarrassment, lack of power, isolation, betrayal and demoralization, before she can "empower" them to take steps to address the problem.

"We get to that place of trying to counter that," she said.

Counseling harassers, on the other hand, focuses on "respect" and "appropriate boundaries," she said. Ultimately, the client has to make decisions on how they will change to keep their job.

Schafer said she'd like to think recent media attention on the topic can empower victims who may feel like they couldn't speak up in the past.

"I think with most issues, having it be named and talked about and removing the taboo and the stigma tends to help things," she said.

Jane Pettinger has taught human resources management at Minnesota State University Moorhead since the 1980s, and she said the prominence of sexual harassment in that training has diminished.

That's not because it's less important now, she said, but simply a matter of the "crowded field" adding more topics that need to be covered, such as planning for workforce needs and establishing good hiring practices.

Ideally, employers could rely on a strict screening process to weed out potential harassers as they apply for a job. But Pettinger said that's all but impossible to do, especially as organizations refuse to comment on a past employee's job performance when hiring managers call to check a reference.

She said organizations can take steps to "control" potentially problematic employee's behavior by emphasizing the importance of respect and making it clear harassment won't be tolerated.

Initial training when employees first join the company is critical, she said, though it's not enough because those sexual harassment tends to get "buried" by many other topics in those first days on the job. Pettinger said there needs to be periodic, interactive training to make sure it's taken seriously.

She said her students, like the companies they work for after college, seem to know the potential costs when sexual harassment isn't properly handled and prevented. Still, she said renewed media attention could make that message even more powerful.

"These new stories are a fantastic opportunity for everyday organizations, whether they're a 16-person startup or whether they're Microsoft, to say, 'Because this is in the news, let's do some stuff on this,' " she said.

Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson has been a Forum reporter since 2012 and previously wrote for the Grand Forks Herald.

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