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Minnesota agencies' inconsistency in handling sexual-harassment complaints leaves many offenders lightly punished

Inconsistency in handling sexual harassment complaints in Minnesota agencies
Minnesota Department of Administration
There were 20 documented sexual-harassment cases at Minnesota state agencies between 2013 and 2016 — incidents for which state employees received some kind of discipline.

At the Department of Corrections, video evidence showed a male worker brushing the buttocks of a woman he worked with; he also told her he liked to watch her “jiggle” while she made rounds. At the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs, a man asked a female co-worker if her breasts were named Harley and Davidson because of a T-shirt she was wearing. Both men were given a written reprimand — but didn’t miss a day of work.

At the Minnesota Department of Transportation, a senior legal counsel was visibly drunk and inappropriately touched multiple female co-workers, including putting his hands down the pants of one. He was suspended for 10 days and then returned to work. Another man at the Department of Corrections talked to an employee about visiting nudist colonies, called her a “backstabber” when she switched departments and made comments about wanting to “bend that one over” about women visiting the facility. He was suspended for one day.

The details of those incidents come from hundreds of pages of documents substantiating 20 sexual-harassment cases at Minnesota state agencies between 2013 and 2016 — incidents for which state employees received some kind of discipline. The records don’t include every complaint of harassment among state agencies during that time: Under Minnesota’s public disclosure laws, only those cases that result in some kind of reprimand are made public.

But the cases reveal a confusing, opaque and uneven system for dealing with sexual harassment by state government employees in Minnesota. The state’s five-page harassment policy doesn’t clearly outline what kind of behavior is punishable by a simple reprimand versus a suspension, for example. Instead, it’s left up to officials in a scattered and massive bureaucracy, one that includes some two dozen agencies and more than 34,000 employees.

In fact, among the cases reviewed by MinnPost, the only thing that was consistent was a lack of consistency about how sexual-harassment cases were punished — and a reluctance to impose the most serious penalties on the offenders. Among the 20 cases reviewed by MinnPost, not a single person was fired.

They ‘valued him more than me’

On Monday, Gov. Mark Dayton called on the department of Minnesota Management and Budget to review the state’s policies and procedures when it comes to sexual harassment policies and make recommendations for improvement.

“The State of Minnesota must be an employer equipped with the tools, ethic, and culture necessary to prevent sexual harassment before it begins,” Dayton said, “and to take swift, meaningful actions to root it out when it occurs.”

That could be easier said than done. Much like the Minnesota Capitol, which has been engulfed in a sexual harassment scandal over the past week, in state agencies there are clear power dynamics at play between supervisors and employees, women say, and there’s fear they will be punished if they report inappropriate behavior.

That was the case for a female state employee at MNIT, the agency that handles technology systems for departments across the state. In December of 2015, the employee, who asked not to be identified, was still getting her footing as a business analyst when a top official — part of MNIT’s executive leadership team — started taking interest in her development in the department. He would hold team meetings and then ask her to stay behind. He offered to “take her to school” on how to be a software developer, repeatedly calling her into one-on-one meetings, which would sometimes stretch on for more than two hours. In the meetings, he would pepper her with personal questions about her marriage.

Gov. Mark Dayton
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Gov. Mark Dayton

“They were really, really confusing, like he wanted to help me but he was also asking me very personal questions,” she told MinnPost. “It was clear to me that there was a game being played, but I didn’t know what. My instincts were telling me one thing, but I was so intimidated.”

One night he asked to continue talking to her about her career over dinner. She felt strange about meeting out of the office, but she was intimidated by her superior. After talking about it with her husband and a few friends, she decided to go, but during the course of the dinner, things took a sharp turn toward the inappropriate, she said.

Her superior asked her things like, did she find him attractive, or what she would do if he kissed her. He said there was a darker side to her that he found interesting, asking if she’d ever been to a gentleman’s club. Then he got to the point: He asked her why he should pay her to be put in a higher level position in the IT department, she said, which she interpreted as clear quid pro quo. She was stunned and brushed off the question and left the dinner.

Not long after, she filed a sexual harassment complaint with her department. She was interviewed by investigators, but after initial conversations, she was in the dark about what was happening. When the process was complete, human resources said they ruled in her favor: The official would be reprimanded.

She assumed that meant he had been fired, but she quickly learned his punishment was a one-day suspension — on a Friday. “I couldn’t believe it,” she told MinnPost. “When I asked about it, I was told by the HR director that discipline was supposed to be corrective, not punitive. They didn’t once think about how I felt about it or what happened to me.”

She was offered the chance to move to a different department, but she loved her job and her co-workers. In the end, she felt that she was the one being punished for filing a sexual harassment complaint.

“I loved my job and the project I was working on, so I stayed at work, but I was miserable. My mental and physical health suffered,” she said. “I finally left that location for another job in MNIT six months ago. But I still have so much anger. They clearly valued him more than me.”

A system-wide review of harassment policies

The state of Minnesota has a zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy that defines harassment as  “unwelcome sexual advances, unwelcome requests for sexual favors or other unwelcome verbal, written or physical conduct or communication of a sexual nature.” State workers are encouraged to quickly report any incident to an agency supervisor or human resources. Investigations usually take about 30 days. Sometimes the unions that represent employees get involved if a case affects multiple employees. 

But state agencies have no centralized system for handling sexual harassment complaints. Each agency conducts its own investigation and decides what kind of punishment will be issued, if any. The penalties listed include suspension, verbal or written warnings or termination, but there’s no guidance on when a certain action is appropriate.

Myron Frans, commissioner of MMB, the department that oversees human resources and policies for other agencies, said that’s how cases have been handled for years, even before his time. He does hear about some sexual harassment complaints, especially when they end up in the courts. That happened recently in a case that was outside the scope of the documents MinnPost received. In late 2016, Stillwater Prison Warden Steve Hammer was fired by the Department of Corrections for exchanging sexually explicit messages and making inappropriate comments about an intern, according to the Star Tribune.

Commissioner Myron Frans
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Commissioner Myron Frans

That was an extreme case. Hammer was verbally abusive to employees and wrote in an email to a woman from his official account: “Mine misses you,” clarifying to her that he meant his “Head Heart Body Penis Not Necessarily in that order," according to the intital investigation. Documents also show he asked a woman to “Face time naked,” according to the Star Tribune. Hammer is now suing the state to return to work, as well as receive back pay.

Generally, Frans said, the agencies have the best expertise in handling their employees and work environments, but that could be looked at as part the comprehensive overview of harassment policies that Dayton has directed. He said they will consider both whether agencies or MMB should handle complaints, as well as if there should be more guidance on what kind of reprimand is appropriate.

“We’ve got bargaining units with unusual, specific contract rights, and those have to be negotiated, you have different work places with different kinds of work situations. I think that’s something we need to look at, can we provide guidance, if you will, about where people should be going,” he said. “When we delegate the authority to implement the process to the agencies, we pretty much leave it to them and we typically don’t get involved.” 

“It’s a balancing act, and we’re not saying we get it right all of the time,” Frans added. “We are not perfect and we know we want to improve that.”

When it comes to who investigates sexual harassment claims, each state agency appoints its own investigators, but they are not required to have any specific training. In one case, a complaint involved harassing comments someone made about another state employee on Facebook, but the investigator didn’t look at Facebook.

Frans said the state sometimes brings in outside investigators for high-level cases. The state will look into whether there should a more standardized set of training for all sexual harassment investigators, he said.

Frans also thinks the state should retool the sexual harassment training it requires at the start of employment for supervisors, and said they are considering requiring more training for supervisors and potentially all state employees.

“One of my projections is that part of what we will be recommending is continuing to do more development of training from the enterprise, from MMB, to help give agencies more tools and more opportunities to deal with this,” Frans said.

Women seek other options, speak out for themselves

Many sexual-harassment complaints never lead to any discipline. If workers are unhappy with the result of a state investigation, they can go outside of the agency and file a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

Late last year, Kara, who asked that her last name not be used, was working as a recreation therapist in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program when a clinician took interest in her appearance. At work one day, he mentioned a photo of her on her Facebook page, even though they weren’t Facebook friends. It was a professional pregnancy photo, and he told her it looked like she had a strong connection to the baby. 

Kara said clients in MSOP, who are civilly committed to the program to undergo treatment for sex offenses, also told her the same clinician was talking to them about her appearance and using her as an example in therapy sessions. “By doing this in a group setting, he’s basically inviting them to view me as a sexual object,” Kara told MinnPost. She confronted him about the behavior and he admitted he talked to clients about her. But he said he would deny it if she reported the behavior to a superior, according to a subsequent sexual harassment complaint. 

Kara filed a complaint, after which investigators interviewed three people and closed the investigation. She was notified that her complaint was dismissed as unsubstantiated. Upset by their response, Kara said she decided to also file a complaint with the EEOC. She also filed a separate sexual-harassment restraining order in court. She settled for a no contact order with the clinician, she said.

But after she did that, Kara said working at MSOP was terrible. She was restricted to certain buildings and felt she wasn’t getting the experience she needed. She now works outside of the field entirely at a car dealership.

In other cases, women have taken it into their own hands to deal with co-workers who act inappropriately. In an incident at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in 2013, a man left an anonymous note for a female co-worker about what she wore to work. “On behalf of some of the men in the office I want to say thanks for wearing that really sexy outfit on Thursday!” the note read, according to records. “I know it’s not appropriate for such a comment but hey you looked very nice and I thought that most of the men (at least the ones still alive) liked it. :)”

The woman reported the incident and the man received a written reprimand. But she also wrote a public note posted in the office to whoever “was ballsy and stupid enough to leave this ... note in my mailbox.” She called the note “degrading” and “classless,” she said it troubled her that the author admitted it was inappropriate but “moved ahead with sexually harassing me anyway.”

“Since it appears your brain is not functioning well, let me spell something out for you: I am my parents' daughter, I am my husband’s wife, I am my daughter’s mother and I am a woman,” she wrote. “I AM NOT some object to be ogled, discussed and harassed.”

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Consider this...

It is important to note that if an employee is being sexually harassed at work, the best place to turn for help may not be Human Resources. Consider that HR staff's paychecks come from the organization and their charge is to limit legal risk. Downplaying an employee's complaint may serve everyone except the person who is being harassed. HR's role is also to support and coach managers. Letting go of an otherwise effective manager for sex harass means HR has to initiate the hiring process to find a replacement. Not an easy task in the available workforce.