How North Bay businesses are addressing sexual-harassment claims

Attorney Jay Putnam talks about workplace retaliation and harassment law during a workshop at the Petaluma Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, December 7, 2017 in Petaluma, California . (BETH SCHLANKER/The Press Democrat)

ROBERT DIGITALE,

Harvey Weinstein. John Lasseter. Al Franken. Roy Moore. Matt Lauer. Charlie Rose.

The names represent a sampling of powerful men who in the past two months have been accused of sexual harassment or other inappropriate behavior with women.

The stunning allegations involve a few dozen men around the nation and include those with ties to Sonoma County. Among the latter are Lasseter, a Sonoma Valley resident, and former Social Finance (SoFi) CEO Mike Cagney, who resigned from the online lending company following allegations of a “frat house” culture at the company’s Healdsburg offices.

Business attorneys and human resource experts say the avalanche of news is making company workers, supervisors and owners take notice.

“I have a very attentive audience now,” said Linda Higueras, who provides training on the topic of sexual harassment to managers and employees. Higueras, who works for the Personnel Perspective consulting firm in Santa Rosa, said nearly every day, headlines arrive announcing “the fall of yet another legislator, dignitary, celebrity, executive, academic.”

The experts say the time is right for owners and managers to be reminded once more of the need to take steps to prevent sexual harassment and to address any complaints quickly, fairly and thoroughly.

“If left unattended, it always gets worse,” Petaluma employment attorney Jay Putnam said of sexual harassment and bullying.

Companies taken to court on a sexual harassment case can easily face legal bills in the range of $1 million, even if they win, Putnam said. And juries are made up mostly of workers, he said, meaning they hold a “much stronger affinity for the employees” alleging harassment than for the business owners.

Forty-eight percent of women workers in the U.S. say they personally have experienced an unwelcome sexual advance or verbal or physical harassment at work, according to an October poll conducted by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal. Also, 67 percent of male and female workers said they believe sexual harassment occurs in most or almost all workplaces.

The unprecedented wave of sexual harassment reports has spawned “#MeToo,” a movement of women demanding change and gaining attention. Time Magazine has named as its 2017 Person of the Year “The Silence Breakers,” women who came forward to share stories of sexual harassment and assault.

Among those adding her voice is Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who wrote a Dec. 3 opinion piece in The Press Democrat sharing her own experiences of sexual harassment.

“Women must speak up and speak up louder than the voices that blame victims or excuse perpetrators,” Hopkins wrote.

Putnam, who represents businesses, said owners have good reasons to take sexual harassment complaints seriously. The first reason is they likely are true.

“The vast majority of these complaints prove to be well founded,” he said.

Higueras said she has encountered cases where there had been a misunderstanding between coworkers or an exaggeration of details. But in 30 years of working on sexual harassment issues, she said, “I have never had one false allegation.”

Even so, the experts said, by their nature, cases of sexual harassment often must overcome two barriers: Workers are reluctant to voice them and supervisors can be reluctant to address them.

For those sexually harassed, “most of the time people aren’t willing to come forward with it, because they fear they’re going to be fired,” said Robert Ottinger, a San Francisco attorney who represents workers, including those suing SoFi.

Supervisors, meanwhile, must fight “the inclination to look the other way,” said Putnam.

Chris Mazzia, an employment attorney with Anderson Zeigler in Santa Rosa, said managers and owners should avoid “the not-here syndrome,” essentially denying that there could be certain types of sexual harassment in their workplace.

“Businesses succeed by making difficult decisions,” Mazzia said, and managers must push past any emotional or institutional barriers in order to deal respectfully and impartially with a sexual harassment complaint.

Putnam said he often has been brought in to conduct formal investigations after a complaint has been raised.

He recalled a case two decades ago when a publicly traded winery faced a sexual harassment and retaliation complaint. The winemaker there had been romantically involved with an enologist he supervised. When the woman sought to cool the relationship, the winemaker within days suspended her and gave her a poor performance review.

In order to get to the truth and protect the confidentiality of those interviewed, Putnam said, he needed to have the winemaker temporarily suspended. The matter ended with the termination of the winemaker and the enologist gaining back her job.

Putnam emphasized that workers who bring complaints are in fact offering employers the chance to correct a problem. Properly addressing the complaints is more than simply a means to avoid an expensive legal fight, he said.

“Demonstrating simple humanitarian respect is good business,” he said.

In the wake of allegations and lawsuits against SoFi, the company’s executive team “has taken a hard look” at the company’s culture, “and frankly we still see a lot of room for improvement,” according to spokesman Jim Prosser.

“We are taking strong steps to make clear that we will resolutely enforce our policies against sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior,” Prosser wrote in an email. “If someone at SoFi acts improperly, we want to know about it. And we will act swiftly and severely to address any issues.”

The firm, he said, is launching a companywide initiative with its staff to “define the culture and values we want to embrace.”

Local human resource experts encouraged companies to take a proactive approach on sexual harassment. Part of that effort involves educating workers on what behavior is expected.

Scott Ormerod, a partner in Leap Solutions in Santa Rosa, said companies also benefit when they provide a workplace where workers feel welcome, accepted and respected.

In such companies, managers take time to address issues they encounter and they demonstrate that they are responsive to their workers.

Such behavior, he said, answers a key question for sexual harassment victims: “Will I be intimidated or encouraged to share?”

Since 2006, California law requires companies with 50 or more employees to provide regular training to managers on sexual harassment. The training now includes bullying and next year must also cover issues of gender identity and sexual orientation.

Karen Alary, a managing partner at Personnel Perspective, said many companies today train not only their managers but all of their workers.

“My sense is employers locally are wanting to be proactive in getting their employees educated and trained,” Alary said. The worker trainings about sexual harassment are “just raising everybody’s awareness that it’s not to be tolerated.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.