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IU Northwest management pros help local businesses prevent, confront sexual harassment claims

Experts make training relevant, valuable with new assessment tool


IU Northwest file photo
Charles Hobson, Ph.D., Professor of Management

No employers want to find themselves involved in a sexual discrimination lawsuit. Whether it’s a corporate conglomerate or a tiny “mom and pop” business, no company is immune, and the results can be devastating if an employee seeks legal action.

Take, for instance, a woman who had worked at Tyson Foods, Inc. Distraught about the unwanted advances she had experienced in only the first month of her employment, she brought a sexual harassment lawsuit against the company resulting in a startling $1.2 million settlement in 2010.  

Closer to home, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued a Michigan City restaurant in October 2010 after a waitress complained of being sexually harassed by a manager, the only available person to whom she could complain. The restaurant had no policy prohibiting sexual harassment, according to the EEOC, nor did it provide anti-harassment training.

In both cases, experts at the Indiana University Northwest Center for Management Development say they could have helped those employers avoid or drastically reduce the devastating legal action using a new assessment tool and consulting services the Center provides for companies.

IU Northwest Professor of Management Charles Hobson, Ph.D. has been called upon for his human resources expertise since the 1980s, when sexual harassment guidelines were first enacted by the EEOC. Over the past 30 years, Hobson has served as an expert witness in 37 employment discrimination cases.

Jana Szostek, J.D., director of the IU Northwest Assessment Center, is an attorney acutely aware of the nuances of the laws that courts and workplaces scrutinize to enforce justice in the workplace, namely, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which addresses sexual harassment.

Recently, Hobson and Szostek combined their human resources and law expertise to create a comprehensive assessment tool to help companies evaluate their compliance with EEOC guidelines. The tool, expected to be published in a professional journal, summarizes guidelines of the EEOC and the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) and cites behavioral research and case studies from Supreme Court cases and voluntary settlements. The tool assists the IU Northwest consultants in assessing employers in five categories: the policy itself; procedures for filing a complaint; training of employees and managers; investigating complaints; and corrective action.

“[We believe] this instrument is going to cover all the bases,” Szostek says. “All of these things are going to be evaluated by us, a neutral third party with the knowledge and experience and objectivity to evaluate and improve their processes.”

Some years ago, Strack and Van Til President Dave Wilkinson called on Hobson and his team to provide sexual harassment prevention training to his employees. Over the years, Wilkinson, who earned his MBA at IU Northwest, has adapted the training into an annual online training program. The managers of the grocery giant now take an online refresher course every year.

Wilkinson feels it’s critical that his employees are initially trained and periodically reminded about how to recognize and deal with sexual harassment and to stay informed about those laws.

Even with the “model program” that Hobson says Strack and Van Til has, there are bound to be occasional issues that arise, especially with a company that has nearly 5,000 employees. That’s why Wilkinson says revisiting the policies and procedures regarding sexual harassment annually is a must for a company to reduce its risk and liability.

“If we can deal with it quickly and effectively, then our risk will be minimized,” Wilkinson says.

Szostek says another common problem is that companies often have a sexual harassment policy in place but they never revisit it, or they don’t communicate it throughout the organization. Furthermore, they don’t take steps to prevent it in the first place, or they simply stick their heads in the sand and expect not to be responsible because they are uninformed. Whatever the case, Szostek says that too few companies that need to worry about this are taking it seriously.

“Employers need to realize that even if they don’t fall under the Civil Rights Act, Title VII, for an employee to sue under that law, an employee that is being sexually harassed still has options for how they can sue the employer,” she says. “An employer should not get comfortable and think they don’t have to deal with this because they don’t have 15 employees. If you have one employee, you are at risk for a sexual harassment lawsuit.”

While sexual harassment prevention training is a service that can be provided by any law firm, Bill Gregory, executive director of the IU Northwest Center for Management Development, says the team’s approach is unique in that it is practice-oriented rather than legal-oriented. A training session devoted solely to reciting the laws, he explains, without discussing how employers and management interact with each other doesn’t make much of an impact.

As one example, suppose an employee wants to make his or her manager aware of sexual harassment but asks that no action taken.

“That is a dilemma that managers have constantly,” Hobson says. But the employer has a legal obligation to act. Role-playing this scenario with a client is one way the consultants make their training relevant and valuable to a company.

Gregory points out that going through a company’s sexual harassment prevention practices with a fine tooth comb and helping them to create the proper documents and plan of action goes beyond simply minimizing the company’s risk if a claim is brought against it.

“It’s also about helping companies change the culture of the company to make it a more productive and safer workplace,” he says.

For more information about sexual harassment prevention training by the IU Northwest Center for Management Development, call (219)981-4257 or visit mgtctr@iun.edu.

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Additional Article Photos

IU Northwest file photo
Jana Szostek, J.D., director of the Assessment Center