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Saint Mary’s hosts second workplace sexual harassment workshop

| Wednesday, April 25, 2018

One of a series of workshops on sexual harassment in the workplace was held in Saint Mary’s student center on Tuesday.

Entitled “What is Sexual Harassment: Looking Through Multiple Lenses,” the workshop included interactive case studies and a panel discussion moderated by WNDU anchor Tricia Sloma.

Sloma introduced case studies for attendees to review and panelists to discuss. In each of the proposed scenarios, attendees were asked whether they deemed a situation to be sexual harassment.

“When you look at the workplace, you have to do the right thing,” Tania Bengtsson, principal and director of marketing and innovation at Gibson Insurance, said.

An important part of maintaining a work environment is maintaining and updating policies that make the workplace respectful of employees, Lonnie Douglas, executive director of the South Bend Human Rights Commission, said.

Kris Urschel, director of human resources at Saint Mary’s, said the College‘s new orientation program would focus on a cultivating a respectful work environment.

“Our new focus on our orientation program [for new hires] is going to shift a little bit … and talk about our culture, who we are and what the expectations are from a respectful workplace,” Urschel said. “That really is the right of every employee, faculty, staff or student at Saint Mary’s College.”

The rights of employees are found in workplace policies that dictate what a particular organization considers to be its core values, Bengtsson said.

When a situation of potential harassment is witnessed, there is a responsibility to report it so that the employer is aware of the occurrence, which is necessary for harassment claims to be legally actionable, attorney Elizabeth Klesmith said.

Douglas said sexual harassment can also be combatted through the efforts of people who are willing to speak up.

“Any organization needs what I call an interrupter, and that is a person that is not afraid to speak out, even though the harassment might not be happening to them, but they can interrupt it,” Douglas said. “We also need strong people to speak out and say, ‘That’s not acceptable to me.’”

Douglas said interrupters now have the responsibility of upholding a company’s values when they witness harassment because society no longer views men as aggressive and women as permissive.

To bring forward a sexual harassment claim, one must go through a thorough an extensive process, Klesmith said.

“There are multiple elements that you have to have in order to prove a sexual harassment claim,” Klesmith said. “It’s not just that the person harassed you.”

Klesmith said the entity generally held responsible for sexual harassment is not the harasser but the employer.

“Just because something doesn’t rise to the level of being actionable in a court doesn’t mean that it’s okay,” Klesmith said.

The Seventh Circuit Court, under whose jurisdiction Indiana exists, has a strict set of requirements in order for a claim to be called actionable sexual harassment Klesmith said. Cases the court has determined to not legally constitute sexual harassment include unwelcome physical advances and lewd comments.

“It’s very difficult in Indiana to state a claim for sexual harassment, and it’s another reason why you have to try and protect your employees,” Klesmith said. “These are things that happen to people, and they’re not [actionable] claims. They get zero redress from them in the court system.”

There are differences between what is determined to be worthy of legal redress and what is still inappropriate for the workplace, Klesmith said.

“Just because a court doesn’t find it to be actionable sexual harassment doesn’t mean that it can’t be actionable sexual harassment within your organization,” Klesmith said.

Common sense is essential to determining appropriate behavior in workplace situations, Steven Eller of Beacon Health System said. This common sense, he said, can come from the education system and remain in place once a person has learned what behavior is appropriate.

“Those who are [teaching] in middle schools and high schools are … the role models for those students who then come to a college campus where they live on their own,” Eller said. “Those perpetuate to the work environment.”

College President Jan Cervelli said sexual harassment is a social justice issue that the College takes seriously. Saint Mary’s involvement in this series of workshops comes from a desire to create better workplaces for students, who are the leaders of the future, Cervelli said.

“Since the beginning of the College, we have been developing women leaders, meaning that they go out and make the world a better place,” Cervelli said.

Another workshop in this series is planned for June 18.

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