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Encouraging Reporting Of Wrongdoing Lessens Litigation Risk For Public Employees

Written exclusively for My Community Workplace for Government

The Oregon legislature agreed to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit brought against it by the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) on behalf of several women who alleged they were sexually harassed by a former state senator.

According to the lawsuit, the accused senator had a history of verbal and physical sexual misconduct. Two of the defendants describe repeated instances in which the senator hugged them, made sexual comments, and touched their thighs, hips, and breasts. The lawsuit also included allegations that leaders in the legislature and other high-level individuals in the state government did nothing to stop the harassment, and some went as far as to discourage the women from pursuing legal action.

As part of the settlement, the legislators will pay $1.1 million to the female victims, and $200,000 to the BOLI to cover their legal costs. In addition, the lawmakers will implement several changes to address harassment complaints. These include creating an impartial group to manage complaints; conducting periodic surveys about the work environment in the Capitol; and performing exit interviews for all interns, pages, and volunteers. Hillary Borrud "After Sexual Harassment Scandal, Oregon Legislature Reaches $1.3M Settlement" (Mar. 11, 2019).

Commentary and Checklist

Failing to investigate complaints of misconduct, as alleged in this case, discourages employees from coming forward, and increases a public employer's exposure to litigation risk. Harassment victims begin to feel legal action is the only recourse they have in order to be heard. By not responding to complaints, a public employer loses the opportunity to resolve them internally and inexpensively.

Here are some additional ideas that will encourage the reporting of sexual harassment and other wrongdoing before it becomes a litigation risk:

  • State in your policies and procedures that employees are encouraged to disclose wrongdoing without fear of reprisal.
  • Make sure employees understand that reports of retaliation will be investigated as well.
  • Create a reporting method that provides multiple avenues through which reports can be made, including a neutral third party where employees can report anonymously.
  • Make it clear to your workplace participants that you "want to know" of wrongdoing as soon as it is suspected.
  • Take seriously all the concerns presented by every complainant, and treat all individuals involved with respect throughout the investigation.
  • Respond to all reports of harassment in a prompt and consistent manner. Employees are more likely to report misconduct if they know it will be investigated fairly.
  • Treat everyone who reports wrongdoing with respect.
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