Talk is cheap, action could be priceless

By Seth Ogilvie, Idaho Public Television


Hours after members tasked with addressing possible amendments to harassment policies inside Idaho’s Statehouse, Majority Leader Chuck Winder stood at the front of the Senate, looked at his colleague Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill and said “Your voice sounds sexy today.” That comment was broadcast around the state.

Inside the Senate room, Winder’s remark got a few laughs in the chamber, various looks of astonishment from reporters and unknown reactions from citizens around the state.

Last year this comment may have never been repeated or discussed. That was before the #MeToo and Time’s Up movement. It was before reports erupted about Harvey Weinstein. It was even before a harassment settlement was announced with the state Controller’s office, as well as before allegations about Rep. Brandon Hixon, Rep. James Holtzclaw, Sen. Bob Nonini or lobbyist Colby Cameron.

But this year the Idaho Statehouse has multiple conversations about harassment running concurrently.

The Respectful Workplace Task Force personifies the first conversion members, made up of lawmakers, lobbyists, journalists and Statehouse staffers, are attempting to change the culture of the Idaho Statehouse and put a policy in place that combats harassment.

At the same time, Statehouse hallway talk has focused on self-preservation. There are quips about not being able to make jokes, hug, speak freely, or meet with women alone anymore for fear of being on the front page of the newspaper. This personifies the second conversation.

People looking for change and guidance without direction personifies the third.

In the first meeting of the Respectful Workplace Task Force, Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb _ a Democrat from Boise and co-chair of the panel focused on the need to have a solid policy in place by saying, “I took it for granted that that culture would follow me along.”

Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville , in the same meeting drew attention to the second sentiment by arguing that  “At least a half a dozen people didn’t get it. People immediately said ‘this does not apply to me’.”

“It can put them in an incredibly difficult position,” said Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, talking about the awkward place leadership would be in hearing these complaints. She echoed the third conversation looking for change and guidance saying “they don’t have (human resource) experience themselves.”

No one in the Idaho Legislature is sure about the right course of action, but the Legislature does have resources they can use.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, investigated workplace harassment in 2015. The commission found that preventing workplace harassment must start at the top. Leadership “must communicate a sense of urgency about preventing workplace harassment. They must communicate this through words, policies, and procedures that create a culture in which harassment is not tolerated.”

Winder, a Republican from Boise, was making a joke when he commented on a sexy voice. Winder said Wednesday to Idaho Reports he takes harassment very seriously, but studies have shown harassment happens not because of bad actors but because of bad environments.

“Workplaces that tolerate harassment have more of it and workplaces that are less tolerant of harassment have less of it,” said Mindy Bergman, a psychology professor at Texas A&M University in the EEOC report. “This is a circular problem, because when harassment occurs and organizational leaders do not take it seriously, then the message is that harassment is tolerated, so then it becomes even more OK to harass-and when harassment is taken seriously and shut down, then the message is that harassment is not tolerated.”

Winder’s comment doesn’t excuse harassment. However, the comment does not reiterate to the Senate chamber and the state that telling someone they have a sexy voice is unacceptable in the workplace.

As of Wednesday, Idaho Reports knows of no complaints filed about Winders comment on Jan. 25th.

The unknown is how this could affect the next time a page, lobbyist, lawmaker, reporter or citizen hears they have a sexy (insert noun). The EEOC studied how many people file complaints after being harassed and found “anywhere from 87 percent to 94 percent of individuals did not file a formal complaint,” and that is just the individuals that know they could.

The Idaho Statehouse is even murkier.

“Often times these things can happen off campus,” said Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene, drawing attention to the working environment of the Idaho Legislature. In the Statehouse, few people work for the people they interact with and seldom do bills get greenlighted at the statehouse instead they get passed over food and sometimes drinks.

Den Hartog, however, didn’t see that as a complication: “It’s not unique to address outside people. We’re not as special as we sometimes think we are.”

However, the Idaho Statehouse has some constitutional complications. Three branches of government all at some point in the same building and countless citizens expressing their constitutional rights to protest and occasionally be offensive. “We should not try to overreach and create a perfect environment while infringing on the public’s constitutional rights,” said Chad Houck with the secretary of state’s office.

Then there are the complications that victims encounter.

Harassment is not fully understood even by those victims. Sexual harassment has three general categories.

  1. Unwanted sexual attention. It is easy to understand it. It is exactly what it sounds like.
  2. Sexual coercion. It is basically a quid quo pro, if you want this promotion, give your boss this sexual favor. Or, if you want to keep your job, give your boss this sexual favor.
  3. The final category is not always at the top of mind when thinking about harassment. Gender harassment is sexual but not aimed at forcing sex. It is comments that undercut men, woman, gays, lesbians or transgendered people from their ability to do their job. Think of comments like “hussy” or a “male whore” or actions that make it hard for people to advance or do their job.

An EEOC deep dive into other peer-reviewed studies on harassment found that “anywhere from 25 percent to 85 percent of women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.” That is a huge range. The major factor was that studies that asked people if they experienced “sexual harassment” in the workplace found one in four women said yes.

The number skyrocketed when studies asked people if they have experienced unwanted sexual attention, sexual coercion, or gender harassment

Lilia M. Cortina, Ph.D., Professor at the University of Michigan  pointed out that even amongst the people who acknowledged this harassment “fewer than 20-30 percent label the conduct as “sexual harassment” per se.” Cortina continued “rates are even lower among women who have only encountered gender harassment.”

“Will people get what they desire?” said Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding. “If we don’t have someone to listen to them in there it might get pushed under the carpet.”

“We’re lacking about specifics about the process,” said Toni Lawson, a lobbyist with the Idaho Hospital Association “There needs to be openness and follow up, and the process needs to be spelled out.”  

The knowledge of what is and isn’t “sexual harassment” is only one impediment to reporting the other is retaliation. A 2003 study found that three out of four employees who spoke up about harassment faced some form of workplace retaliation.

The process itself impacts if people report or not. Victims of harassment don’t report the behavior because they fear “disbelief of their claim; inaction on their claim; receipt of blame for causing the offending actions; social retaliation (including humiliation and ostracism)” according to the EEOC.

“We need an outside professional that has experience,” said Den Hartog.

Legislative leadership is always in a political situation by their very job, she added. They are not trained in how to deal with harassment complaints.

“It can put them in an incredibly difficult position, and they don’t have (human resources) experience themselves,” said Den Hartog

According to EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum, leadership is crucial, but it is not enough. Feldblum said, “for workers to believe their leaders are authentic – that they mean what they say — there must be accountability.”

However, accountability in the Idaho Statehouse will always come with a cost. Lobbyist Jack Lyman, with the Idaho Housing Alliance, summed up that cost succinctly: “Remember the people with green tags are funding this thing …who has the authority to say we don’t want you anymore?”

Therein lies the problem, it takes following through with the harsh repercussions to change the culture of the Idaho Statehouse.  

“If weak sanctions are imposed for bad behavior, employees learn that harassment is tolerated, regardless of the messages, money, time, and resources spent to the contrary,” the EEOC wrote. “Similarly, if high-ranking and/or highly-valued employees are not dealt with severely if they engage in harassment, that sends the wrong message loud and clear.”

In short? Without enforcement and without punishment of bad behavior, having the right words and right police will have little effect on implementing real change.

“Changing a culture takes a while,” said Buckner-Webb.


Note: Idaho Reports host Melissa Davlin represents the media on the Respectful Workplace Committee. She did not contribute to or edit this report. 


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