The year 2019 will be remembered for many things. Sadly, one memorable thing may be the fact that Iowa goes broke paying out sexual harassment and retaliation settlements.
Iowans are left holding the short end of the stick due to the fact that a broken culture in government was not fixed the first time this occurred. Unfortunately, the result is that we are seeing a costly mistake play out now. This week the State of Iowa agreed to pay nearly $3 million to settle sexual harassment or discrimination claims. Last month, the Iowa Appeals Board agreed to pay a $4.15 million to settle two claims of sexual harassment in a governmental organization.
These will not be the last settlements and, thanks to some persistent inquiries, Iowans know there are at least six other cases of harassment being investigated by the Department of Administrative Services.
You can tout a policy and implementation of “zero-tolerance,” but it does not change a culture that is broken. It does not eliminate fear or risk associated with bravely coming forward. And it does not reassure or eliminate mental anguish a worker experiences when facing discrimination, bullying or harassment.
A “stated” policy does not change the reality that unbalanced power structures and broken culture exist in many corners of workplaces and, most egregiously, in government. A policy is only as good and effective as the leader who implements it.
Someone once said, you cannot legislate decency. That is absolutely true. You can, however, legislate accountability. A lack of perpetrator accountability has led to Iowans footing the bill in these settlements. When consequences are clearly outlined, a different kind of understanding exists and is followed. It is unfortunate that accountability measures have not been part of the discussion in state government workplaces. Instead Iowans have seen a lot of chatter around placing blame and rooting out perpetrators, who have been left to run amok because the culture has been unattended by state leaders and broken for a long time.
Instead, what our state government can and should do is focus on accountability. Our state government can infuse accountability into a workplace. Our state government can appropriately discuss and work through everyone’s role in changing workplace culture. It can empower and reassure workers that it is OK to intervene, support, and backup their colleagues who are marginalized, belittled, and bullied.
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Workplace leaders can address harassment, bullying and retaliation face-to-face with employees rather than retreating to the protection of their high offices and simply mandating directives. These measures cost nothing other than time, effort, and a commitment to providing a safe workplace. When workers know they are valued, listened to and have each other’s back, they foster a culture of accountability that will be balanced.
If leaders and officials continue to ignore and refuse to put time and effort into creating better workplace cultures the alternative will continue to be costly. And, unfortunately, Iowa taxpayers will continue to foot the bill.
• Kirsten Anderson is an advocate for harassment-free workplaces. She was fired from her job as communications director for Iowa Senate Republicans after she spoke out about repeated sexual harassment and retaliatory behavior by staff and lawmakers at the Statehouse. She sued the State of Iowa and Senate Republicans for wrongful termination, harassment, and retaliation and won. She encourages others to stand up for what is right.