The Quiet Complaints: Sexual harassment at the U

More than 100 complaints have been made in the past five years; one-fifth were formally investigated.

Taryn Wobbema

One by one, fewer than a dozen individuals trickled into the east committee room on the top floor of McNamara Alumni Center. They sat down, separated by chairs, sometimes entire rows, and shared an uncomfortable quiet. Only 20 University of Minnesota employees had registered for the Sexual Harassment Awareness and Prevention workshop that drizzly Tuesday afternoon, and half actually attended. The facilitator stood at the front explaining policies, providing hypothetical scenarios and answering questions about a topic many have identified with in anonymous surveys, but few have reported. Over the past five years, the UniversityâÄôs Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action has recorded 123 complaints of sexual harassment. Of those, 26 cases were investigated formally and 24 were solved through informal methods. These incidents are categorized based on the severity of the allegations, the willingness of the individuals involved and the availability of alternative avenues for resolution. EOAA consultants know the main reason people donâÄôt report harassment is because theyâÄôre embarrassed. Two University researchers worked on a 2009 study that found that individuals are often targeted for harassment based on the likelihood theyâÄôll report it. While the study found 25 percent of people have experienced sexual harassment, only a third of those who felt they had been harassed chose to report it. The University looks into every allegation of sexual harassment, and those with more serious allegations are handled according to a strict procedure. Due in part to victimsâÄô reluctance, most complaints never reach the investigation stage. The last straw: Reporting harassment In 2006, a University employee received a letter from a co-worker sheâÄôd asked never to contact her again. For nearly two years, she had tried to handle the situation on her own, but the letter that arrived after an 18-month silence made her realize her own efforts werenâÄôt enough. As a result of the ensuing investigation, David Brown was terminated from the University because it was determined that he did not âÄúgrasp the concepts of sexual harassment despite being trained twice,âÄù according to the investigatorâÄôs report. In August 2004, Brown sent an e-mail to another employee, in which he unloaded a series of insults against her, her friends and her boyfriend. The e-mail seemed to have been brought on by an earlier encounter during which she firmly told Brown she didnâÄôt have time to talk, according to the report. Two months later, Brown wrote a friendlier e-mail that made no mention of his previous behavior. Another e-mail from October 2004 communicated BrownâÄôs disbelief that she liked him. According to the report, âÄúThis supports [her] belief and allegation that [BrownâÄôs] unwanted attention was geared towards securing a personal relationship, which she declined.âÄù At the start of January 2005, Brown sent âÄúChristmas and birthday gifts, a four-page letter, a DVD movie entitled âÄòFools Rush InâÄô and a teddy bear,âÄù the report stated. The victim swiftly returned the items with a note that boldly directed Brown never to contact her again in any way. Nearly 18 months later, she received a letter from Brown at her home requesting that she contact him. That was the last straw. The victim reported the two years worth of harassment to her supervisor, who brought it straight to EOAA. EOAA Director Kim Boyd said her office is often the last stop in a personâÄôs attempt to overcome unwanted attention from someone at work. Heather McLaughlin, a sociology doctoral student and co-author of the 2009 study, said victims of sexual harassment often wait to report the incident until they have exhausted strategies on their own, like ignoring, avoiding or confronting the harasser. The researchers concluded that individuals in supportive work environments are more likely to come forward with complaints. Richard Portnoy, chief administrative officer in the epidemiology and community health department, handled the issue that arose in 2006 by reporting it to EOAA as soon as it was brought to his attention. In his 13 years in the department, this was only the second time someone had come forward about sexual harassment. The first incident involved the same man. In the 2006 case, the incident was investigated, witnesses were brought in and the facts were enough to terminate the respondentâÄôs employment. The entire process took several months to complete. Boyd said lengthy and invasive investigations such as this potentially disrupt the work environment further, which is one of the reasons EOAA seeks alternatives to formal investigations. Portnoy said he thought the process was handled with the rights of both the accused and the accuser in mind. âÄúThis did not become all kinds of rumors that were going around the department,âÄù he said. âÄúYou never like to see this occur, but we understood that both parties on both sides needed to be protected in the process.âÄù A complex situation Tim Livingston maintains his innocence of the sexual harassment allegations made against him last summer. According to University documents, Livingston told a woman he worked with âÄúthat he might need to look for another job because he thinks about her too much and dreams about what their kids would look likeâÄù and in May 2009 asked her to perform a sex act with him and another woman. Livingston denies both of these allegations. Comments he made on her clothing made the victim feel self-conscious. A time when he looked her up and down and smiled made her feel violated, according to the report. Livingston claimed that the majority of the charges against him were untrue and never presented to him during the investigation. He said when he heard the assertion that he had, while out to lunch, propositioned a sex act, he âÄúvehemently deniedâÄù it. Though the victim and a number of witnesses told an EOAA consultant that Livingston frequently crossed professional boundaries in conversation or action, Livingston said he and his co-worker were friends. He said she never expressed discomfort with the things he said to her. Livingston said he contacted an attorney once he received the letter outlining the conclusions of the investigations. The lawyer said it would cost thousands of dollars to challenge the outcome âÄî a challenge that would rely upon the word of each party. âÄú[The EOAA] told me, âÄòSorry, we donâÄôt have an appeals process,âÄô which kind of infers that theyâÄôre infallible,âÄù Livingston said. He said he now worries his opportunity for advancement in his job will be hurt. âÄúI donâÄôt think IâÄôve been treated fairly, to tell you the truth,âÄù Livingston said. Boyd said the investigative process allowed Livingston the chance to hear the accusations made against him. She said he protested against the conclusion of the case, but EOAA stood by its findings. During each case, Julie Sweitzer, EOAA director from 1998 to 2006, said the consultant has to âÄúgather enough information to believe [he or she] knew what was happening.âÄù âÄúYouâÄôre always making decisions based on the totality of the facts we had at the time,âÄù Sweitzer said. âÄúEvery situation is very complex.âÄù Changing the rules of the game The dated phrase âÄúboys will be boysâÄù no longer suffices when cases of sexual harassment arise. Sociology professor Phyllis Moen said that in the 1960s and 1970s, women who entered the workplace dealt with sexual harassment as unavoidable office culture âÄî workplaces ruled by men. Back then, she said, sexual harassment was treated as a private issue. Women could make it clear they werenâÄôt interested, but often it was seen as âÄúthis is the way men are,âÄù Moen said. As someone whoâÄôs been in higher education for more than 30 years, Moen said, âÄúWhen I first started, there was a lot of locker room-type of joking. Because there were so few women as professors, they either smiled or laughed along with it because thatâÄôs all they could do.âÄù Now, more and more companies have written policies that bring harassment to the surface. A 1991 survey conducted by the American Management Association found that 75 percent of the member companies it surveyed had policies in place to handle sexual harassment. Simultaneously, Moen said men working now have a better grasp of acceptable behavior. âÄúThe rules of the game have really changed,âÄù Moen said. In 1972, the University opened EOAA to handle complaints of discrimination and sexual harassment between University employees and between students and employees. Three consultants handle the complaints by conducting investigations or hosting mediations. The University adopted a formal sexual harassment policy in 1998. It defines sexual harassment as âÄúunwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and/or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual natureâÄù that are made a condition of professional or academic advancement or that interfere with a personâÄôs ability to work. Federal law requires the University follow up with every complaint of sexual harassment and discrimination of which they are aware, University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg said. Under federal law, individuals can seek compensation if itâÄôs found that the University did not adequately handle his or her case. This has only occurred twice in the past five years, according to University data. âÄúThe law doesnâÄôt require that we investigate every allegation; it requires that we follow up,âÄù Rotenberg said. âÄúOftentimes there are things that the University can do for an employee or a student that doesnâÄôt require a formal investigation.âÄù When a case comes before EOAA, Boyd said she first evaluates whether the incident could be resolved without conducting a formal investigation. âÄúItâÄôs not necessarily the best thing to do a formal investigation. If they can resolve [it] internally, itâÄôs sometimes better to do that,âÄù Boyd said. âÄúEspecially in sexual harassment, it isnâÄôt always helpful to the environment to have us interviewing and investigating if we can do it another way.âÄù Defining the terms which examined the course of action often taken by victims of sexual harassment, researchers found that varying tolerance levels pose a challenge to tracking sexual harassment. In questions exploring specific behavior, 36 percent of those surveyed said theyâÄôd experienced offensive joking while at work. Forty-two percent responded âÄúyesâÄù to being asked questions about their private lives. Of the 25 percent that actually considered these experiences harassment, a little more than a third said they reported the behavior to a supervisor. A similar proportion said they talked about the situation with a co-worker. âÄúThereâÄôs a discrepancy between the number of people who experience certain behaviors that we would call sexual harassment âĦ and the number of people who actually label their experience as sexual harassment,âÄù McLaughlin said. This discrepancy makes coming forward difficult for some workers who want the behavior to stop because they are often told there is no real issue, McLaughlin said. When asked by The Minnesota Daily, several men and women working at the University said they have not experienced or seen sexual harassment happening around them. âÄúI donâÄôt think that I have experienced that,âÄù said Tanya Baxter, a physical therapist who has worked at the University for 37 years. One respondent, Jenna Baumgartner, said an experience she had with a co-worker could have been considered harassment but at the time she did not take it as such. She said it depends on a personâÄôs comfort level. Baumgartner said the incident was with an older co-worker who may not have realized his actions were questionable. She said this co-worker may have been lonely and this was his way of showing affection and may have gone too far. âÄúI didnâÄôt take it personally as harassment, but the next person may have,âÄù she said. Undisputed or unproven In February last year, Boyd received a call from the department of psychiatry about a case of sexual harassment they were trying to resolve. The departmentâÄôs human resources staff had already conducted an initial investigation, and the accused wasnâÄôt disputing the facts. But the facts were serious. âÄú[The complainant] was pretty upset. She called and we talked quite a bit during the process,âÄù Boyd said. The case lacked witnesses, but because the respondent âÄî accused of making inappropriate comments and subjecting the complainant to the recount, in explicit detail, of a dream he had about her âÄî wasnâÄôt arguing the details, outside corroboration wasnâÄôt necessary. In a typical case, the investigator relies on the observations of witnesses. Sometimes people experiencing the harassment think to keep a record of their interactions. Suggestive or threatening e-mails can help tell the story and provide support for one party or the other. In the absence of witnesses, the EOAA consultant has to rely on âÄúhe said, she said.âÄù Over the past five years, 10 complaints have undergone investigation by EOAA and have closed without finding a policy violation. Even without a clear violation, Boyd said EOAA may recommend the unit participate in a training workshop. Sometimes nothing is proven, but something is there.
Duluth response to sexual harassment questioned A letter dated July 15, 2009, told Rod Raymond something he already knew: âÄúYou have been accused of sexual harassment.âÄù Two complaints by female employees prompted the investigation in April 2009. They accused University of Minnesota Duluth campus life fitness and wellness director of engaging in âÄúsexually suggestive behaviorsâÄù and making âÄúuninvited sexual overtures.âÄù After these initial accusations, Raymond told investigators that one woman may have âÄúrejected [his] need to move in on some energy.âÄù Deborah Petersen-Perlman, the director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action in Duluth and the case investigator, interviewed Raymond, both complainants and 16 witnesses. She concluded Raymond was responsible for creating âÄúa hostile work environment due to sexual harassment,âÄù according to the report. The findings raised concern that RaymondâÄôs actions pointed to a pattern that, in addition to the five women who came forward through the investigation, included others who hadnâÄôt filed complaints. According to the report, Raymond demonstrated no understanding for the implications of his behavior. At its conclusion, Peterson-Perlman recommended Raymond be terminated from his position at the Duluth campus. The recommendation was not followed. Instead, Raymond completed a Prevention of Sexual Harassment workshop, another training tool online and agreed to a number of terms that would limit his interactions with female employees. Paul Egtvedt, RaymondâÄôs attorney, declined to comment on his clientâÄôs behalf. The incident was reported in Duluth last October when one of the victims told The UMD Statesman that she believed the university was âÄúoverlooking the severity of the issue.âÄù Raymond is currently under a second sexual harassment investigation. Duluth officials declined to comment because the issue involves personnel and because the investigation is ongoing. Kim Boyd, director of EOAA at the UniversityâÄôs Twin Cities campus âÄî the office that handles sexual harassment claims among staff members âÄî said she has never had a case where a department did not follow an investigatorâÄôs recommendations. When the investigator recommends termination, Boyd said he or she has had a conversation with the supervisor, so the outcome isnâÄôt unexpected. âÄúWhen serious disciplinary action needs to be taken, I would be surprised if the supervisor didnâÄôt follow the recommendation,âÄù she said. âÄîTaryn Wobbema is a senior staff reporter.