Monday, February 19, 2018

Sexual harassment complaints rare in East Texas

By Ken Hedler
Dec. 3, 2017 at 11:30 p.m.
Updated Dec. 4, 2017 at 11:01 a.m.

The recent deluge of sexual harassment allegations and reports of workplace misconduct in government, entertainment and news media has human resources managers reviewing policies and procedures — and wondering if their organization might be next.

While Longview-area employers say such incidents are rare and expressed faith in the policies they have in place, they know how disruptive such incidents can be in the workplace.

"It affects anyone who has any kind of communications, relations with anybody involved," said Rita Fyffe, human resources director for Gregg County government.

At Longview ISD, spokeswoman Elizabeth Ross said this: "We want to make sure we are providing a safe space. If (employees) don't feel safe, they cannot provide a safe educational experience for our students."

For this story, the News-Journal reached out to officials with a range of employers in the public and private sectors to learn how such complaints are handled and to get information on policies in place.

As did other employers, Gregg County and Longview ISD said there are policies in place to respond immediately to complaints.

What it is

The definition of sexual harassment is broad and can range from off-color jokes to inappropriate touching and repeatedly propositioning a coworker or employee for dates or sex. Area employers said incidents can trigger actions ranging from a meeting with an immediate supervisor or human resources manager to firings and lawsuits.

The issue is addressed in employee handbooks, and many employers said sexual harassment training is part of their procedure. Still, a human resources consultant suggested many such policies might have fallen behind today's realities.

"The playbook for HR, when it comes to sexual harassment, is a 25- to 30-year-old playbook," said Brian Kropp of CEB, a global research and advisory company.

That playbook, he said, is one that has worked this way: Employees make a complaint, human resources officials take time to investigate, and the matter generally stays private until it can be resolved.

"It's too slow for addressing these issues as they occur now," he said.

The reason is the rapidly changing social media, technology and cultural environment in the U.S.

Social media is a big part of that environment, as HR managers must consider how to handle a #MeToo story they read on a colleague's Facebook page that seems to implicate a coworker. It might raise questions about what to do when employees are chatting in anonymous workplace chatrooms or when a worker writes a public blog post about the sexual harassment they faced.

Complaints filed

At Gregg County, Fyffe said no sexual harassment complaints have come to her attention in the 16 years she has been human resources director. She acknowledged supervisors might have resolved problems without taking further action or making her aware.

By contrast, the city of Longview has encountered four incidents since June 2008, according to information city spokesman Shawn Hara supplied from Bonnie Hubbard, the city's human resource manager.

The first incident involved a female employee complaining about a male colleague touching her inappropriately, leading to a one-day suspension.

The city in August 2009 investigated a complaint from a woman who claimed a male coworker touched her inappropriately and called her "pet names," Hubbard wrote. While the complaint was uncorroborated, city management recommended placing the two employees on separate crews.

In the third complaint in May 2014, a female employee received a written warning after a female coworker complained about her showing undergarments and joking about her "night job," Hubbard said.

The city responded to the fourth complaint, in March 2016, by disciplining a man who took a photo of the backside of a female coworker with his personal cellphone. The city required him to take sexual harassment training again, barred him from using his personal cellphone on the job except during an emergency, suspended him for two days and placed him on probation for six months, Hubbard wrote.

Inappropriate joke

At Copeland Insurance Group of Longview, Human Resources Director Heather Mayfield said she has handled only one complaint since she started working for the company, in accounting, 13 years ago.

Mayfield recalled an employee in Georgia sent her an email about 10 years ago to complain about a joke that a male manager had made.

Mayfield said the company ordered the manager to come to Longview to meet with her.

"I sat with him one-on-one, and we went over what is OK and what is not (in the workplace)," she said.

More recently, Kilgore College staff investigated a complaint this year of sexual misconduct involving a student, college spokesman Chris Craddock said in a statement. However, staff determined the allegation was not substantiated.

Sometimes complaints emerge from outside parties. For instance. C.J. Clayton, general manager of the 82-room Staybridge Suites on Fourth Street, said she had fielded five or six complaints over the past 11 years that she has been in the business from employees who were offended by comments made by male hotel guests.

"That stuff does happen," she said, adding she quickly resolves such an issue by discussions with the guest.

'No tolerance'

Longview Regional Medical Center spokeswoman Libby Bryson said the hospital "is committed to providing a safe, harassment-free environment for patients, employees and visitors. No form of harassment, discrimination or other inappropriate workplace behavior is tolerated, and any report of such action is taken seriously."

Citizens National Bank has "no tolerance for unacceptable behavior," said Danette Heffner, executive vice president and human resources director.

"HR holds a critical role in being preventive and proactive by educating employees, and it is imperative for employees to know and understand the procedures to follow to report any type of harassment and to feel safe in doing so," she wrote.



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