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Staying Professional and Avoiding Legal Complaints

It’s a relatively common scenario: A town employee believes she is being sexually harassed and reports the inappropriate behavior to a friend, since her friend also serves on town council.
Sexual harassment legal expert Kevin Sturm presented the example during a session about the topic during the Municipal Association’s Annual Meeting in July.

“I’ve had train wrecks of cases where the councilmember wants to be the employee’s champion,” he said. “Well, that’s great, but you can’t do that.”

Instead, the elected official should direct the aggrieved municipal employee to the proper channels within the administration. At the same time, the elected official should tell city administration what the employee had reported to him.

“You refer it back to the administrator, and you tell the administrator, ‘Bob came by’ or ‘Suzie came by and said this to me — just so you know,’” said Sturm.

“You can let the administrator do what they were hired to do or the mayor do what they were elected to do in a strong-mayor form of government,” he said. “And if there’s a problem, council can talk about it in executive session.”

There are several things for elected officials to keep in mind if they receive a complaint from municipal staff. Sturm offered another piece of advice for elected officials and city staff, alike:

  • No hugging. It’s not appropriate in a professional setting. In the age of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements aimed at empowering victims of sexual harassment and abuse, social and cultural values are changing. A one-time incident, touch or violation is enough to bring a lawsuit. “The tolerance level is going down, down, down,” Sturm said.
  • Elected officials should consider their city’s form of government and the authority of the administrator or manager when considering how to deal with a harassment accusation.
  • The conduct that constitutes sexual harassment can be verbal, physical, written or pictorial (images of a sexual nature).
  • To qualify as sexual harassment, the conduct must be based on sex.
  • The conduct must be unwelcome to the recipient.
  • The conduct can take the form of a proposition. For example, a supervisor could send an email to a subordinate that says: “Can we discuss your possible promotion over dinner?”
  • Employers can be responsible for sexual harassment by nonemployees. An example would be a vendor who harasses an employee during a visit to an office.
  • Avoid workplace romantic relationships in which there is a power disparity.
    “Employees on the same level dating? That’s a different matter. If you are a councilmember, no, no, no. Don’t date (municipal) employees.”