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#MeToo Elicits More Harassment Conversations, But Not Necessarily Complaints

To address sexual harassment, it needs to be reported. State employees have been hesitant to do that.

The Oregon Justice Building and statue.
The Oregon Justice Building, where the state appeals court handled a case last year on sexual harassment.
(AP/Andrew Selsky)
Since the #MeToo movement took off more than a year ago, many states have updated their sexual harassment policies and training for people working in state government. The list includes California, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Virginia.

“We want to define a culture within state government that does not accept sexual harassment,” says Byron Decoteau Jr., state civil service director for Louisiana, which revised its sexual harassment training for all employees this month. “We want to establish a culture where everyone is held to the same standard, where you need to come forward and report something if you see it, and there is no retaliation.”

Getting employees to report harassment targeted at them has been one of the biggest challenges.

In April, a report from the Louisiana legislative auditor's office, which included an anonymous survey of executive branch employees, revealed that while nearly all respondents -- 97 percent -- knew their agency’s process for reporting sexual harassment, many were uncomfortable following through. Of the 16 percent who said they personally experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, more than 75 percent did not report it. 

While some of the respondents thought the sexual harassment they experienced was not serious enough to report, others cited fear of retaliation or not being believed, embarassment, and a perception that nothing would be done anyway, as reasons to not come forward.

“The reporting process is the problem,” says Elaine Zundl, research director at the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University. “Educating employees of what their rights are is only the first step. There has to be a clear reporting and investigation process with clear deadlines -- how long the investigation will take, who will be notified, who is responsible for conducting the investigation.” 

But there are reasons to believe that employees are more willing to report sexual harassment and that employers are taking it more seriously.

From 2017 to 2018, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission saw a 13.6 percent increase in accusations of sexual harassment. And the EEOC reports that it recovered almost $70 million through litigation and administrative enforcement for public- and private-sector victims of sexual harassment in fiscal year 2018 -- up from $47.5 million the previous year. (State and local governments do not yet have -- or will not share -- similar claim or lawsuit data from 2018.)

In Virginia, Secretary of Administration Keyanna Conner says the state has made it easier for state employees to sign up for "coaching" to deal with all kinds of workplace conflicts and problems, including sexual harassment. Coaching occurs when workers want help but are not ready to file a formal complaint.  

“We’ve seen a 500 percent increase in coaching in the last year,” she says.

It's a similar story in Milwaukee. The number of informal calls to bring up problems or seek guidance about all kinds of harassment has increased, says Maria Monteagudo, the city's employee relations director. But that hasn’t translated into an increase in formal complaints. When harassment is addressed at an early stage, the problem may be less likely to escalate to one requiring a formal claim, grievance or lawsuit. 

“People are not as afraid to speak up,” she says.  “[They] are more aware of inappropriate behavior. I think that employees feel more empowered to confront the perpetrators and ask for the behavior to stop.” 

To encourage reporting in Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards signed legislation in May -- one month after the auditor's report -- that requires each agency to establish a sexual harassment policy that includes complaint or grievance processes and spells out who complaints go to as well as “alternate recipients” if the supervisor or agency head is part of the problem. The new law requires agencies to take “immediate and appropriate action” when a complaint is received, and to track and publicly report the number of complaints each year. (The reporting requirement won’t be in effect until 2020.) It also prohibits retaliation against accusers. 

The legislature focused on prevention, too, and mandated an hour of annual sexual harassment training for all employees every year, with additional training for supervisors. 

Louisiana's new law took effect Jan. 1. Decoteau believes that the attention devoted to the topic by the state's leaders has already changed the playing field.

"Employees have a better appreciation of how such activities can negatively affect the mission of the organization," he says. "They understand that such behaviors can make or break the trust our citizens place in their government."

While his department has worked hard on training reforms, Decoteau emphasizes that training is just the beginning.  

“We need to continually bring this up, that we’re not going to tolerate this. Everybody has to take an active part. If you see something that is offensive in someone’s office or cubicle, you have to report it,” Decoteau says. “In order for this to work, it has to stay at the forefront. I don’t think this is something where you can just pass legislation. You can’t pass legislation to make individuals be moral or ethical. The training starts the conversation, but it just starts the conversation.” 

This appears in the Management newsletter. Subscribe for free.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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