State government confronts sexual harassment

April 18, 2018
Gov. Eric Holcomb signs a law requiring sexual harassment training for lawmakers, flanked by Sen. Jim Buck and Rep. Karen Engleman. Standing from left are Rep. Tom Saunders, Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, Rep. Cherrish Pryor and Sen. Tim Lanane. (Photo courtesy of the Indiana House of Republican caucus)

With the rise of the #MeToo movement, organizations of all sizes, including state governments, have been forced to take a long look at themselves.

After the Indiana General Assembly passed legislation this year to expand training and write a sexual harassment prevention policy for the legislature for the first time, the other two branches of state government are taking action.

Legislative branch

engleman-karen-mug Engleman

Rep. Karen Engleman, R-Georgetown, was the author of House Enrolled Act 1309, which was signed into law March 22. Prior to HEA 1309, lawmakers were not required to take sexual harassment training and no specific sexual harassment policy governed their conduct.

With the bill’s passage, the legislature is now required to approve sexual harassment policies no later than Nov. 20.

“There’s so much coming out that we decided it was time to make sure that we don’t have an issue before we do have an issue,” said Engleman.

Engleman said she “never saw anybody being disrespectful to anybody” during the time she has been a legislator. However, she said she had some experience with the issue from her time as Harrison County auditor.

“We did sexual harassment prevention training, but that’s because we had an issue several years ago,” she said. In authoring HEA 1309, she hoped to avoid playing catch-up after a similar situation at the state level.

“You hate doing it that way,” she said.

Mayes Mayes

Jon Mayes is a partner in the labor and employment law group at Bose McKinney & Evans LLP who previously held in-house counsel positions with the city of Indianapolis and was a city attorney in Kokomo.

Mayes called the state’s latest moves unprecedented and forward-thinking. He said the important part was that the branches of government were working together even though the bill itself only covered one of them.

“… Indiana, much like the federal government, has separations of power,” he said, “unlike a private entity where someone may have a complaint and it goes up to the chief executive officer. Here, the governor can’t discipline a supervisor who is a legislator.”

rush-loretta-mug Rush

harassment-numbersJudicial branch

Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush said she was inspired by United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’ 2017 Year-End Report on the State of the Judiciary. In it, he called upon his fellow jurists to confront the problem.

“Events in recent months have illuminated the depth of the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace, and events in the past few weeks have made clear that the judicial branch is not immune,” he wrote.

Rush said she had spoken to Gov. Eric Holcomb about all three branches making a statement together prior to the bill’s signing. She said up until now the judiciary’s sexual harassment policy was contained within the employee handbook.

gruber-andrew-w-mug Gruber

“We think it’s important enough that we have a standalone policy,” she said.

Rush said she hadn’t encountered any issues during her time on the bench. She said beyond simple rules and regulations, creating an atmosphere of respect was key.

“Past sexual harassment trainings focused on what behavior was illegal, but by just looking at what’s illegal it’s almost like we condoned harassing behavior that wasn’t illegal,” she said.

Andrew Gruber is the chair of the labor and employment practice group at Bingham Greenebaum Doll. He agreed with Rush’s assessment and said tackling the issue couldn’t be fixed with policy and training alone.

“Appropriate culture is the way that you stop that, because it’s the right thing to do, not because you’re trying to avoid liability,” he said. “The more companies, and, obviously, our own government, focus in on those ideas, the better we’re all going to be in the long run.”

earnhart-tami-mug Earnhart

Executive branch

All executive branch employees are now enrolled in a workplace and sexual harassment prevention computer-based training module, according to Britni Saunders, director of the Indiana State Personnel Department.

All employees are required to complete this training no later than April 30. This computer-based module content will be updated and required annually.

Almost half of the state’s executive branch employees had completed the training as of April 10, according to the department.

Oxyer Oxyer

Tami Earnhart is a partner in Ice Miller LLP’s labor and employment group and health care group. She said this sort of computerized training may resonate more with tech-savvy employees.

“Sometimes that’s the most effective way to be able to get the training out,” she said. “And, frankly, a lot of younger employees would prefer to do that because that’s the mode of communication that they’re used to using.”

Alex Oxyer is an associate in the labor and employment practice at Frost Brown Todd LLC. She said having a company or government’s stance on sexual harassment in black and white was important in setting markers for what makes for acceptable workplace behavior.

“Explain your policy, explain the expectations,” she said. “I think there are just a lot of things that people aren’t aware can eventually lead to liability.”•


Recent Articles by Rob Burgess