Arizona lawyers and HR professionals: Employers need to be proactive in nipping out sexual harassment.
“I’m a little surprised people are finding this shocking,” says Robert S. Reder, managing partner of Blythe Grace law firm in Scottsdale. Reder is talking about the tidal wave of sexual harassment claims in the last quarter of 2017 following blazing media coverage of Hollywood mogul and accused serial predator Harvey Weinstein, igniting a national movement of silence breakers working to remove their abusers from positions of power. “This stuff goes on all the time,” says Reder. The difference now is that harassment is more difficult to sweep under the rug, and employers of all sizes, in all industries, are taking sharp notice.
“None of this is new,” says Lynda McKay, a Phoenix-based human resources consultant. Before, “people [in power and/or managerial positions] quietly stepped down and it wasn’t made public.” They could easily slip into a high-level role with another company without anyone being the wiser, she says. And the cycle continued.
Now, McKay says clients are calling, asking, “‘What should we be doing? Should we update our policy?’… They’re kind of nervous, asking if things they’ve said or done were OK.” McKay says most businesses could do with updating their harassment policies, if they exist at all since Arizona law does not require employers to provide sexual harassment training. Policies, she says, should include specific instructions on how to make a complaint, as well as how to prevent retaliation against complainants.
McKay would not name local clients that have updated their harassment education. However, one may look to Phoenix-based GoDaddy for an example of how to change the tides of discrimination in the workplace. A December New York Times article detailed how the tech company went from purveyor of sexist Super Bowl commercials to one of the most inclusive companies in tech by revamping its employee review standards and hiring policies, as well as having workers admit and confront inherent biases.
In Arizona, much of the focus has been on the political sphere. State Representative Don Shooter, R-Yuma, was suspended from his position as chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee after at least nine women, including fellow politicians, lobbyists and the former publisher of The Arizona Republic, accused him of making unwanted sexual advances, touching them inappropriately or making innappropriate comments since he began serving in the state Legislature in 2011. Shooter has denied the claims, while House leadership has hired an independent attorney to investigate.
Meanwhile, Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, sent out an official sexual harassment policy to all House lawmakers and employees in late October. “I felt it was appropriate, in light of the national discussion on this issue, to formalize [the House’s informal] policy and improve it,” Mesnard says. “In addition to the ethics trainings that all new members and staff receive from attorneys from the Arizona Attorney General’s office, all members will be required to undergo additional sexual harassment training when the House reconvenes in January.”
By comparison, private, small businesses more removed from the public spotlight are not as gung-ho to do proactive legal work, Reder says. “I’m trying to convince people to even spend $500 on a simple employee handbook… [but] companies do not want to spend the money – we’re very reactionary.” Reder advises his clients that an initial investment of a few hundred dollars could prevent a $40,000 harassment lawsuit later, but to no avail.
Erin A. Hertzog, an attorney with Phoenix-based Aiken Schenk who counsels employees seeking to bring suits against their employers for discrimination, says she hasn’t yet seen an uptick in sexual harassment consults, though that’s not all that surprising. “They’re just starting to become emboldened,” she says. “If there’s anything this public conversation can change [it] is… maybe removing some of the stigmas with reporting.” Harassment won’t continue to be covered up, she predicts. “The pressure is on employers now.”
(Editor’s note, Feb. 1, 2018: After publication, the Arizona House of Representatives voted to immediately expel Rep. Don Shooter from office for “dishonorable” behavior following an internal investigation into sexual harassment claims against him.)