NewsCenter Extra: Sexual harassment in the workplace - KTTC Rochester, Austin, Mason City News, Weather and Sports

NewsCenter Extra: Sexual harassment in the workplace

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Case No. 1 -- 'Mary' Case No. 1 -- 'Mary'
Case No. 2 -- 'Sara' Case No. 2 -- 'Sara'
Case No. 3 -- 'Robert' Case No. 3 -- 'Robert'
Case No. 4 -- 'Jennifer' Case No. 4 -- 'Jennifer'

ROCHESTER/ST. PAUL, Minn. (KTTC) -- Investigators with Minnesota's Dept. of Human Rights (MDHR) are poring over dozens of active complaints of all kinds, and though many center on alleged sexual harassment, a Rochester-based employment attorney says there are increasingly more that involve religious or cultural differences as our society becomes more diverse.

In recent months, a KTTC NewsCenter team reviewed sexual harassment complaints filed by men and women in southeastern Minnesota over the past five years. The MDHR case records were sought in an attempt to shed light on a process set in motion by the State Legislature in 1982 with the passage of the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

MDHR Communications Director Jeff Holman said as of January, there were 80 open cases of allegations of sexual harassment; some may have been reconciled or closed since then. Over the past four years (2009 - 2012) there were 358 charges of sexual harassment filed with the department. Eleven of these were from Olmsted County, seven from Winona County, three each from Wabasha and Steele counties. Two were filed in Mower and Goodhue counties, and one in Freeborn County.  By contrast, there were none filed in Dodge, Fillmore or Houston counties.

"Charges of sexual harassment filed with the Department of Human Rights or any investigative agency represent only a subset of the total amount of sexual harassment that occurs in the workplace, in housing, and in other areas where it is illegal," noted Holman. He says in a recent poll that "as many as 1 in 4 women, and 1 in 10 men, have been sexually harassed at work."

For a special report called "Joking About Sex" for KTTC NewsCenter, four of the recent cases filed in southeastern Minnesota were reviewed. In order to protect the privacy of the alleged victims, we have chosen not to report the names of the people involved, their workplaces, or their hometowns. Two of the four cases resulted in financial settlements, the other two have been closed with no more information about what happened.

Case number 1 involved a woman in her mid-40's who we will call "Mary"; she worked as a housekeeper at a nursing care facility for nearly four years before she was fired. Mary had worked in the care facility for two years but then a new man became her supervisor. She complained that he allowed younger women to come to work dressed in jeans, while she had to wear a uniform, and that she was made to mop the floors while the boss socialized with the younger women, including talk about his sex experiences in motels which she found offensive and harassing. "Mary" said this manager left threatening notes, and she then reported him to the Director of Nursing. She said she was the only housekeeper not to get a raise that year, and later, while she was on vacation, she was terminated.

In the second case studied, a black woman we will call "Sara" was working as a telemarketer and said she was caught texting while at work. She complained that her supervisor told her she would be fired if he caught her texting or eating candy on the job, but white employees were not treated this way. "Sara" said a few months later, in mid-December, she was terminated for passing out candies at work after another female employee had done this with no such repercussions. She asserted to the Human Rights Department that, as she was being fired, the supervisor said that he liked her as a person and, quote "would even take me out for a drink and give me a good reference." "Sara" says the man had previously behaved inappropriately by petting and squeezing her shoulders.

Case number 3: a man asked for an investigation after working as a truck driver at one company for more than 13 years; we are calling him "Robert." "Robert" says he was subjected to sexual harassment -- that a co-worker accused him of enjoying sexual relations with livestock -- and that others then laughed, embarrassing him. He said his supervisor encouraged him to take such ribbing "with a grain of salt." "Robert" says the harassing comments went on, and management did nothing to stop the joking about sex. The next year, after he was in an accident with his truck, he was terminated, though he says that didn't happen to other drivers.

In case number 4, a woman we'll call Jennifer worked in a machining department at a local company. Jennifer said she was subjected to sexual harassment by her supervisor... that he commented that he wanted to "do" her... and that he also encouraged the men working around her to harass her while on the job. She said the man insulted and berated her, and made her to do more work than the men. Later, "Jennifer" said she filed written grievances to supervisors, but as a result, she was made to take a position outside of the machining department and then her hourly wage was cut.

Minnesota's Human Rights Act of 1982 set up a mechanism to investigate complaints like these, but also to protect good companies from unfounded allegations.

If you're with one of those businesses or organizations that's intent on having a good workplace, what can you do to get started down the right path? And then... what do you need to do to handle problems? For simple answers to these complex challenges, we have turned to employment attorney Gregory Griffiths with the Rochester firm Dunlap & Seeger.

"The first thing is to adopt an offensive behavior policy," said Griffiths. "It tells employees what to expect, and helps set parameters. Then you need to train them."

Griffiths said an organization's supervisors and managers need to know what to do should a complaint be made about offensive words or actions, and then management needs to be ready to take action.

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