HR News & Trends, Legal Issues

The 2 Critical Questions From San Diego’s Sexual Harassment Scandal

bob-filner

By Ashley Kaplan

As the number of women accusing San Diego Mayor Bob Filner of sexual harassment reaches the double digits, public interest surrounding the case is at an all-time high, as well.

In the wake of the accusations – and despite intense pressure to resign – Filner refuses to step down. Instead, Filner is undergoing two weeks of intensive behavioral therapy (that was completed early) for what he admits was “disrespectful conduct.”

Because of his time in therapy, a judge has postponed the embattled San Diego mayor’s deposition. A new date has not been set, but the judge ordered both legal sides (Filner and the former communications director who filed the suit) to appear at a hearing on September 16.

In the meantime, we’re left with some pretty hefty questions concerning this high-profile sexual harassment lawsuit. While most of the scrutiny surrounding this case concerns the mayor’s inappropriate actions and attitudes toward women, I’m just as troubled about the compliance issues attached to the case.

1. Why was there a lapse in state-required sexual harassment training?

Under California law, San Diego is required to provide sexual harassment training to all management-level employees within six months of being hired. In addition, California employers with 50 or more employees must provide supervisors with at least two hours of mandatory sexual harassment sensitivity and prevention training every two years.

The mayor’s attorney Harvey Berger indicated in a letter to San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith that the training was scheduled, but the trainer canceled and did not reschedule. In the letter, Berger argued that the city should pick up Filner’s legal fees because it failed to provide sexual harassment training.

The San Diego City Council denied Berger’s request for funds, and it has since been confirmed by a former top city official that the mayor’s office (not the city trainer) canceled multiple new employee training sessions (which included harassment training) at the beginning of his term.

The importance of formal workplace harassment training cannot be overstated here. With all the training options available today, meeting the mandatory requirements is not difficult, nor is it expensive.

Furthermore, this case illustrates the need to provide management oversight and enforcement of training requirements at multiple levels, to guard against situations where the manager responsible for providing training just happens to be the perpetrator.

2. Why would a 10-term U.S. congressman behave so badly?

In the same letter to City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, Berger suggested that while an adult male should not need sexual harassment training, “Filner may not be facing a lawsuit today if he had undergone the classes.” He goes on to say:

This is not an excuse for any inappropriate behavior which may have occurred, but having conducted sexual harassment training many times over the years, I have learned that many — if not most — people do not know what is and what is not illegal sexual harassment under California law.”

While I recognize the challenges in distinguishing unlawful actions in sexual harassment cases, to discount the alleged behavior because “people do not know what is and what is not legal” is quite a stretch. The reality is, sexual predators exist in this world, and therefore, in many workplaces. Two-hour training videos do not cure inherent degeneracy.

Questions about the state of the work environment

Rather than ponder how an individual could do such a thing, perhaps the more meaningful question to ask is, “What kind of work environment must exist to enable this kind of behavior over an extended period of time?”

In most work settings, a sense of decency and professional respect prevents the kind of behavior Filner is accused of, including groping women, forcibly kissing them and making suggestive comments. The fact that more than a dozen women have now stepped forward to claim harassment speaks as much about the general state of the work environment as it does the individual who allegedly committed the offenses.

In the end, it is in every employer’s best interest to take whatever preventive measures are necessary to protect employees from unwanted advances and general harassment. At the very least, these should include instituting clear policies and consequences, conducting ongoing training, providing multiple reporting options, and taking swift and appropriate action when a complaint is filed.

Ashley Kaplan is an employment law attorney assisting employers, human resource professionals, and managers on topics such as harassment training on behalf of G.Neil. As a litigator and HR consultant, Ashley has over 15 years of experience in all areas of labor and employment law. Follow her on Twitter or add her to your circles on Google+. You can also reach her at akaplan@gneil.com.