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How Employers Deal with Sexual Harassment

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Sarah Jaffe provides the details of a story that says all too much about how too many corporations deal with sexual harassment on the job. They cover it up, try to shut down the worker, and facilitate the harasser to continue exploiting women.

Not long afterward, as she waited for her carpooling colleague again, the coach came up to Agganis and began rubbing her shoulder. She pulled away. He said nothing then, but in their next weekly “coaching,” Agganis said, he told her one of her metrics was a little below target and that he could write her up for it—but he wouldn’t. “I felt threatened that if I didn’t put up with his behavior he would write me up and make trouble for me,” she said. Agganis began having panic attacks, and was prescribed anti-anxiety medication for the first time in her life.

When she went to human resources to make a complaint, though, she felt dismissed. By that time, she’d googled her coach, Gary Rochon, and according to the legal complaint she’s filed, found that he had lost his medical license in Wisconsin for having a sexual relationship with a patient. Healso lost a job in Maine following accusations of sexual harassment. Agganis questioned T-Mobile’s judgment in hiring someone with his history to manage a workplace staffing mostly young women, and asked for him to be put on suspension while the company conducted the internal investigation she was told would happen. Instead, she said, she was advised to stick it out until the next rotation, when she would be given a new supervisor.

She was asked to sign a confidentiality form, she said. Agganis asked for time to read the form, and was shocked to discover that it seemed to be telling her that if she talked to her co-workers about her sexual-harassment complaint, she could be disciplined or even fired. “I didn’t want to lose my job,” she said. “But I couldn’t stay where I was being harassed.” She was led to believe that if she didn’t sign the form, there would be no investigation. She signed it, and then she resigned from her job.

Luckily this woman knows the power of a union:

Agganis didn’t give up. Instead, she reached out to the Communications Workers of America, a union that represents many telecom workers, including some at T-Mobile, but not at the Oakland call center. The union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board on her behalf, arguing that the confidentiality agreement violated the National Labor Relations Act’s protections for workers—the act specifically allows workers to discuss “issues related to their terms and conditions of employment,” and act collectively to change those conditions. This August, an NLRB Administrative Law Judge ruled in her favor, requiring T-Mobile to rescind the confidentiality agreements and post notice to its employees at the Maine and South Carolina sites, informing them that it had violated the NLRA and informing them of their rights under the act.

And then this month, backed by CWA, Agganis went public. She’d filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Center and the Maine Human Rights Commission, which issued her a Right to Sue letter. She filed suit in the United States District Court in Maine, charging sex discrimination and wrongful discharge in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Maine Human Rights Act. On October 6, she held a news conference near the T-Mobile call center, and she and her supporters handed out flyers to T-Mobile employees informing them of her complaint.

That’s great for her and it once again shows how unions are so, so much more than just a vehicle for workers to get more money. But a lot of workers don’t have access to unions or don’t know who to reach out to for help on the job. These confidentality agreements employers make employees sign are deeply disturbing and should be illegal. When the employer prioritizes sweeping information under the rug over making sure workers are not sexually harassed (or otherwise exploited or made to labor in unsafe workplaces or whatever) they are acting in a manner that should have legal ramifications.

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  • Sly

    Comic book writer/editor Valerie D’Orazio has a piece up on her blog about just how terrible it can be for victims of sexual harassment at non-unionized workplaces, and dealing with both the backlash and the indifference that happens when they do speak up.

    Context: Since the protection of harassers by HR departments at big comic book publishers like DC and Marvel provides no real formal recourse for victims, women who work in the comics industry have taken to going around the corporate bureaucracy and publicly naming their harassers. So comics writer (and repeatedly accused harasser) Brian Wood circulated a private newsletter lamenting that this will invariably lead to someone accused of sexual harassment taking their own life. Even though victims of sexual harassment in the industry have already done so, but they don’t count because reasons.

    • timb

      wll, it is false light with no due process, but what other recourse do the ladies have?

  • DAS

    Unions are so, so much more than just a vehicle for workers to get more money. But a lot of workers don’t have access to unions or don’t know who to reach out to for help on the job.

    Another problem occurs if the harasser is not a manager but rather a fellow union member. What if your union is more interested in general principles than the well-being of its union members? For example, it may decide that the general principle of peer evaluation is more important than your specific issues with a fellow union member and that hence said union member ought to have every right to be in a position to give peer evaluations of your performance. If your union is more interested in the general principle of pushing back against management, then a management launched investigation of the alleged harasser becomes just another management witch-hunt to be pushed back against.

    These confidentality agreements employers make employees sign are deeply disturbing and should be illegal.

    IANAL, but it seems to me many confidentiality/non-disclosure agreements are or at least ought to be essentially un-enforceable as to enforce them would violate at least the spirit of the 1st Amendment. For instance, if an employee is fired based on violating such an agreement, the employee should be able to sue for his/her job back and/or compensation for the lost job — and the burden should be on the party saying “well X violated the confidentiality/non-disclosure agreement so we fired her per the agreement” to justify that the restriction of speech is necessary, proper and the least restrictive way of accomplishing the goal of the agreement.

    • DAS

      Also, I should add that in some jurisdictions certain unions are prohibited from negotiating for anything other than employee salary and benefits. Issues of workplace environment, management meddling in employee’s ability to actually do their jobs effectively, etc., cannot be part of the union negotiation process. And of course, the same people who push through laws saying “unions can only negotiate things related to wages/benefits” then go around and complain about how unions are only concerned with money and not about anything else.

    • Well, certainly that can be an issue, yes.

    • Joseph Slater

      DAS:

      (1) Yes, unions can be put in difficult situations when the interests of members conflict (e.g., union member A accuses union member B of harassing her), or there is a general principle involved (as you mention). Harassment by supervisors and even cover-ups by supervisors wouldn’t raise this issue, because supervisors wouldn’t be in the bargaining unit (the NLRA and most public-sector statutes exclude supervisors). But sometimes peers harass peers. While unions don’t always behave perfectly, they do have experience with conflicting interests/arguments among members (“No, HE started the fight! “No *I* deserve the promotion because I’m better-qualified” etc.) And it’s almost always better to have a union than be at the unilateral mercy of the employer.

      (2) Confidentiality agreements, at least in the private sector, could not possibly implicate the First Amendment because there is no government action. And I think even the “spirit” of the First Amendment is aimed at state actors, not private actors.

      • cpinva

        “(2) Confidentiality agreements, at least in the private sector, could not possibly implicate the First Amendment because there is no government action. And I think even the “spirit” of the First Amendment is aimed at state actors, not private actors.”

        when you involve the gov’t (suing for violation of the confidentiality agreement), the state becomes involved (because the courts are part of the gov’t), whether it wants to or not. therefore, 1A

        • Joseph Slater

          No, using the government to enforce of private contracts does not implicate the First Amendment. If that were the case, then every contract of any kind would potentially involve constitutional rights, and that’s simply not the case.

    • Brett

      That’s a problem in non-unionized workplaces as well, though. And while peer sexual harassment is really bad, harassment by a supervisor is much worse because they can actually fire or punish you.

      Just in general, companies need much better rules and procedures for dealing with this, whether it’s from a peer or from a boss. More specifically, they need some form of quick and effective punishment to arrest abuse before it starts escalating (harassers almost always engage in “boundary testing”, escalating abuse over time).

    • werewitch

      Another problem occurs if the harasser is not a manager but rather a fellow union member. What if your union is more interested in general principles than the well-being of its union members?

      I’ve seen it happen (with no good outcome in the end, either). It’s certainly a point in favor of greater transparency and clearer accountability.

      it seems to me many confidentiality/non-disclosure agreements are or at least ought to be essentially un-enforceable

      …which is a very good reason to ban those kinds of agreements explicitly.

  • Bitter Scribe

    It’s my experience that a lot of companies talk a great game when it comes to sexual harassment, but there’s an unspoken addendum: “…unless the guy is a rainmaker, a high-ranking exec or related to one, or someone else whom for whatever reason we value more highly than the woman.”

    • DrDick

      Which all too often means “someone with a penis.”

    • Connecticut Yankee

      Bosses, and not just in the private sector, hardly take an interest in sexual harassment (except when they’re among the ones committing it, of course), regardless of the relative monetary value of the employees in question. Even in the not at all uncommon situation of a junior male employee harassing a female superior she’s likely to face a similarly hostile reaction. This really is not about class, and it’s not about capitalism.

      • Joe Bob the III

        This has been my observation as well. I think it’s especially true in companies that aren’t big enough to have a robust HR department where it’s someone’s “real” job to deal with these issues. The bosses have other things to worry about and they just want interpersonal staff problems to go away.

        Many years ago I was aware of a situation at work where several young women complained about a co-worker stalking them outside of the office. He would make comments to them that indicated he knew places they had been at night and on weekends. I was shocked to continue seeing him around the officer, i.e.: that he wasn’t dismissed in short order.

        He did leave the firm eventually though I don’t know if he quit, retired or was conveniently swept up in a layoff. Regardless, no one exhibited a sense of urgency around getting this guy out. On the flip side, the firm didn’t get sued for sexual harassment or hostile work environment either so I guess management’s predisposition to do nothing worked out for them.

    • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

      “we’ll fire him…if we were gonna fire him anyway.”

  • DrDick

    Further proof that we do not need civil rights and worker protection laws because everyone is equal and always treated fairly by their employers!

  • The Temporary Name

    Companies will violate the law to further sexual harrassment.

    http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/cara-backtracks-on-skimpy-uniform-1.3294640

  • efc

    As “solidarity!” and “fight the fight!” this might be, she is probably going to have her case thrown out of court on a Motion for Summary Judgment. Maybe it’s not so bad up in her federal district in Maine, but in 2012 employees filing Title VII claims in the Northern District of Georgia had their cases thrown out in whole or part on summary judgment about 95 percent of the time. (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2326697). And that was plaintiffs represented by counsel.

    This means judges found, after all the discovery had happened and looking at the facts in the best light toward the non-moving party, that the plaintiffs did not have a case as a matter of law. No jury could possibly find for the plaintiff.

    The supreme court and GOP appointed federal judges have been hammering away at civil rights cases. Just recently in Nasser the SC weakened the anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII. It has only been with the intervention of congress on a number of occasions that we have any real protections today.

  • Brett

    These confidentality agreements employers make employees sign are deeply disturbing and should be illegal.

    It should already be illegal. Since when can you force someone to sign a confidentiality agreement to cover up for illegal behavior (which sexual harassment usually is in the workplace)? Thank goodness for the CWA in this case.

    You know, we’ve had studies about unions boosting wages and benefits for women in the workplace recently. I wonder if someone could do a study to determine whether sexual harassment is less of a problem in unionized workplaces. My guess would be yes, at least in terms of sexual harassment from supervisors.

  • Tybalt

    it once again shows how unions are so, so much more than just a vehicle for workers to get more money

    Hey now. No need to be running down money. Workers don’t get enough.

    And I’m happy that Ms. Agganis got some legal help, but that will do her the most good when it ends up meaning she gets money.

    Good old money! Nothing beats it, for the materialist.

    • matt w

      I don’t think Loomis is disparaging the getting-more-money function of unions, just pointing out that there’s even more. It’s a floor wax and a dessert topping!

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