Preventing the Financial and Reputational Costs of Harassment Takes Strategic Leadership in Business and at Work

This past Christmas Eve and Christmas Day respectively, two public-sector cautionary tales of the financial and reputational costs of the failure to effectively prevent and intervene on workplace harassment continued to unfold.

In San Diego, California:

(From the Albany Times Union, December 25, 2013):

San Diego agrees to anti-sex harassment training

SAN DIEGO (AP) — A settlement will compel San Diego to show that elected officials and others have undergone sexual harassment prevention training in the wake of a scandal involving ex-Mayor Bob Filner.

The city admitted no liability in the settlement backed by the City Council, but it agreed to provide at least two hours of online training to supervisors, including elected and appointed officials, within six months of their hire, the U-T San Diego reported in Wednesday’s editions ( ).

The city must report to the state every six months for five years.

“It’s imperative that employees all be treated fairly and feel safe coming to work,” said Anna Caballero, state secretary of business, consumer services and housing.

San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith told the newspaper that the city was glad to reach the settlement and would “diligently comply” with its terms.

The state filed a complaint against the city on Aug. 30 after Filner, facing widespread allegations of sexual harassment, said he never got any training.

Filner and 19 others in his office took their harassment training in July, after the scandal broke, with many missing the six-month state deadline to be trained, the U-T San Diego reported.

Filner, the city’s first Democratic leader in 20 years, resigned less than nine months into a four-year term after nearly 20 women publicly identified themselves as targets of his unwanted advances, including kissing, groping and requests for dates. His accusers include a retired Navy rear admiral, a San Diego State University dean and a great-grandmother who volunteers answering senior citizens’ questions at City Hall. (Emphasis mine.)

Filner later pleaded guilty to one felony and two misdemeanors for placing a woman in a headlock, kissing another woman and grabbing the buttocks of a third.

He will begin his sentence of three months’ home confinement in January (Emphasis mine).

And on December 24, 2013, in Albany, NY (also from the Albany Times Union):

Worker offered paid leave

Option given after she filed sexual harassment claim (Emphasis mine.)

Assemblyman Dennis Gabryszak‘s community relations director was given the option of a paid leave of absence on Tuesday after filing a complaint against the embattled Buffalo-area lawmaker.

With a civil rights lawyer from Buffalo as her attorney, 24-year-old Caitrin Kennedy filed her notice of claim against her boss in the state Court of Claims.

Her accusations of sexual harassment by Gabryszak will be taken up by the Assembly Ethics and Guidance Committee, whose law firm has begun examining a separate set of complaints from three former aides to the Depew Democrat, said Michael Whyland, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Whyland said both Kennedy and Virginia Curtis, who works from Gabryszak’s Capitol office, have been given the option of taking paid leave time without loss of benefits during the probe to make sure they are protected from illegal harassment or discrimination.

On Tuesday, lawyer Prathima Reddy filed Kennedy’s notice, a different attorney than the one being used by three other women in their 20s who also complained about Gabryszak’s comments, questions and behavior around them during their employment at different times of the past three years. Unlike the other three women, Kennedy did not quit her job.

Kennedy started work for the assemblyman Sept. 30 as director of community relations, working mostly in the district office and “despite her short tenure was subject to many of the same forms of sexual harassment as the former employees who have previously filed claims against the assembly member,” her media consultant, Diana Cihak said. Cihak said the harassing comments began to increase in the past few weeks and that Kennedy was planning to complain without knowing that three other former Gabryszak aides were doing the same.

Cihak said another woman who worked with Gabryszak many years ago when he was a public officer in the town of Cheektowaga is also proposing to come forward to discuss a “pattern” of harassment by the 62-year-old lawmaker.

Gabryszak’s attorney, Terry Connors, said: “These are just allegations. We are in the process of developing facts and background and we’ll address them at the appropriate time.”

Among accusations common among the women are that the assemblyman talked about his patronage of strip clubs and his interest in prostitutes. He also invited them to socialize with him and join him for massages, bought them unwanted gifts and made comments about their appearance. Kennedy claimed that Gabryszak’s office camera held images of scantily clad women in hotel rooms. (Emphasis mine.)

In both cases, it appears that the leadership actions taken have been only after the fact and after the allegations were made public via legal action and media placement.  And given the media coverage to date, at minimum the costs in legal fees, PR management and miscellaneous settlement, payroll and benefits dollars have been substantial – not only to these two respective public-sector organizations, but also compounded by the fact that these back-end costs have been and will be underwritten by the dollars provided by taxpayers like you and me.  Furthermore, there has been little or no mention of the internal harassment prevention and due-process infrastructure present in both organizations (if it even exists) to effectively prevent and/or address harassment complaints, including but not limited to:

  • Strong proactive (before the fact) internal and external statements by each organization’s leaders that they personally have a zero-tolerance policy against harassment in any shape or form, in partnership with their Human Resources and Legal leadership;
  • Mandatory Harassment Prevention Training conducted at least annually for all employees at all levels;
  • Policies specifically outlining that harassment is illegal; out of bounds with the organization’s values; and that the organization has a zero-tolerance policy against harassment in any shape or form by any employee at any level;
    • Which also specifically define what harassment is, and what the organization’s penalties are for incidents of harassment;
    • Which also specifically define what false reports of harassment are, and what the organization’s penalties are for false reports (rare, but it does occasionally happen);
    • Which also specifically define the due process for reporting incidents of harassment, including but not limited to providing multiple internal contacts to make such reports (e.g. HR, an Ombudsperson’s Hotline, etc.)
  • A track record of taking swift and sure action against those who violate the organization’s Harassment Prevention Policy – even if that track record is not publicized, that the organization’s leadership proudly owns the track record of enforcing its own Harassment Prevention policy.

Without this strategic leadership to effectively prevent and intervene on workplace / organizational harassment, an organization’s leadership unconsciously chooses the option of always managing incidents of harassment reactively, guaranteeing their organizations will subjected to reputational, legal and financial risk; and that doesn’t include the same risks that these leaders will also personally shoulder.  These bottom-line harassment impacts drive home those organizational values which must be present for ongoing credibility and sustainability. Not to mention the fact that a lack of a documented, well-communicated and utilized internal due-process for effectively preventing and intervening on workplace harassment positions an organization for the greatest legal risk.

How does your organization take the lead strategically to prevent and avoid the financial and reputational costs of harassment, in business and at work?


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