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Meeting of 6-20-16 - Public Meeting on Proposed Reboot of Harassment Prevention Efforts

Written Testimony of Fran A. Sepler, President of Sepler & Associates

Chairperson Yang and Members of the Commission, thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. I am a consultant, trainer and fact finder who has been focused on prevention, identification and remediation of workplace harassment for approximately 30 years. I work across industries, including the nonprofit and public sector and academia. I have conducted over 700 independent fact findings, conducted training for over 150,000 people and served as an expert witness and advisor to organizations throughout the world, focusing on discriminatory and nondiscriminatory harassment, or bullying. I also teach an occasional master's level class on Workplace Fairness at the University of Minnesota.

In September of last year, I had the privilege of testifying before the Select Task Force on Harassment, and to share my observations from "on the ground." I had been asked to identify organizational risk factors for harassment and to describe strategies that are effective in combatting harassment. Several key points I made at that time are reflected in the excellent Task Force Co-Chairs' report, and I would like to emphasize them here today.

First, healthy organizational cultures nourish respectful behaviors and stifle those that are abusive and harassing. When everyone in an organization shares a fundamental value that every employee matters and is worthy of respect regardless of their title or pay rate, harassment is rare and quickly stifled. Cultures, however, are often declared and less frequently realized. Too often the companies where I investigate horrific acts of misconduct proudly sport plaques in their lobby declaring people their best assets. The nurturing and development of a culture of respect requires commitment, accountability and know-how at every level of the organization. The less solid and positive the culture, the more fertile ground for disrespectful and harassing behavior. The report has appropriately defined the importance of systems and accountability as part of that positive culture.

While I concur with the Co-Chairs' report's statement on page 38 that "It Starts at the Top," I emphatically believe that middle managers are where the rubber hits the road in setting tone, recognizing problems as they develop and responding with urgency and empathy. In fact, my firm has conducted research that suggests that how a supervisor responds to a complaint by an employee is the single most potent determinant of whether that employee will bring a charge against the organization. To that end, I was recently engaged in a project with an industrial facility that was teeming with racially, sexually and ethnically inappropriate conduct. The solution was not wagging fingers or slapping hands, although some disciplinary action was essential. Rather, the company provided solid leadership development and training for the supervisors and managers, most of whom who had been promoted because they were good at their job. They knew how to issue instructions but knew little about leadership.

The model we used was simple. We told them that there are three questions that every employee should be answering with a yes:

  • Do you feel respected at work?
  • Does your employer value you?
  • Does the work you do matter?

We worked with the supervisors week after week to determine what they could do to "get the employees to yes." In fact, they now survey their employees monthly on these three questions. There has been a drastic decrease in observed or reported harassment or misconduct in addition to marked improvements in productivity and safety. The supervisors now recognize emerging problems, understand what to say and most importantly not to say to a complaining employee, how to actively listen and demonstrate empathy, and to know when to partner with their human resources departments.

Secondly, I spoke of the hazards of organizations characterized by eminence, and the risks associated with privileges attached to what the Co-Chairs' report refers to as "superstars." Superstars receive many privileges that are arguably earned-they are highly compensated, provided with superior facilities, given larger budgets, often offered accommodations others are not because they are superior contributors to the reputation or bottom line of their organization. Some, not all, claim additional, unearned privileges, such as engaging in uncivil treatment, abuse of those of lower rank or demanding the forbearance of others while they engage in frankly inappropriate or illegal behavior.

This happens because rainmakers and eminent professors don't really have "managers." They have individuals or groups who try to keep them happy and productive, and many are loathe to address problematic behavior. I shared with the Task Force my experience with a professor who for years had his foreign doctoral students bathe his feet, clean his toilet and service his sexual needs, and who was only reported to University officials when one of those former students, by then a tenured faculty at another university, came forward. Upon investigation, it became clear to me that school leaders knew what this professor was doing, but he was the source of so much income and had acquired such superstar status for the school that there was no will on the part of his department or school to act. While there are other risk factors for organizations -decentralization, isolation, and more, which are described beginning on page 25 of the Co-Chairs' Report - "Superstar" dynamic is pernicious and requires significant organizational will to overcome.

Finally, at the September meeting we discussed training. It is my opinion that education about harassment and how to prevent and address it is necessary, but that the effectiveness of such efforts hinge on whether such training can penetrate beyond head learning and motivate people to behave in particular ways. Thirty years in to a career of training, I now generally decline to do freestanding "anti-harassment" training because it necessarily makes a long term difference. Rather, in conformance with the recommendations made in the report, my firm's training frames harassment as one of a variety of "derailers," along with abusive behavior and micro-aggressions, which undermine a respectful culture and a positive workplace. The lion's share of the training (which I refer to as respectful workplace and the Co-Chairs report refers to as civility training) focuses on very concretely defining respectful behavior, understanding the dynamics of interpersonal problems in the workplace, managing conflict, providing feedback, bystander and ally responsibilities, and creating a culture of candor. I was pleased at how fully the report embraced the testimony of our panel and others urging employers to consider training that is live, interactive and customized. I am also appreciative of their recommendations, found on pages 53 and 66 of the Co-Chairs' Report to evaluate and study the effects of the training to ensure continuous improvement and identify best practices.

As an investigator and frequent public speaker on these topics, I am often asked if harassment is going away. I thank Co-Chairs Lipnic and Feldblum for their clear and persuasive statement that harassment continues, affecting the lives of working people of every stripe. Perhaps our greatest challenge is creating systems which allow people to speak up early, to have confidence that they will not be subject to reprisal and to be able to continue their employment without finding themselves so debilitated by their experiences that their performance suffers and their continuing employment is jeopardized. When I ask a training audience why it is that people, on average, wait over a year to report harassment to their employers, I rarely have to wait two seconds before someone says "fear." Fear that it will make things worse, fear that nothing will happen, and fear of reprisal remain the greatest barriers to early reporting- - reporting, in other words, when the situation is remediable. The report identifies on page 42 address what I believe to be core organizational competencies that are at the heart of protecting employees.

Thank you for the opportunity to be part of this significant effort to understand, prevent, and stop harassment in the workplace.