Iowa hasn’t learned its lesson about preventing workplace harassment

June 4, 2021 8:00 am
Woman holds her hands in front of her face

A Des Moines woman who was the subject of repeated acts of domestic violence is suing the city’s police department, alleging officers failed to arrest her attacker as required by state law. (Photo by Getty Images)

The Iowa State Appeal Board recently approved another sexual harassment settlement for an employee who endured disgusting and retaliatory behavior at the hands of her supervisor while working for the Department of Human Services.

Compensating targets of sexual harassment is necessary, but the current outcomes aren’t solving the problem of harassment in Iowa government workplaces. The Iowa Attorney General and the Iowa State Appeal Board are in a powerful position to make change and prevent future settlements.

The attorney general negotiates the settlements, but they are subject to State Appeal Board approval. Right now, the board does not have to hold problem departments accountable, hold harassers personally accountable, or require proof of sufficient change before approving settlements. Nor do they ask people targeted by harassment for their views regarding these settlements and maybe it’s time they should.

Harassment, retaliation and bullying is a game of power and control and targets are rendered powerless by their abuser’s inappropriate behavior. Holding employers accountable for their misdeeds helps targets regain their strength. I’ve been through this process as a former target of sexual harassment, retaliation and bullying while working in state government. Going through the civil litigation process in the hopes of a large payout was never my primary focus. Accountability and enacting change were front and center for me. I wanted my harasser, and those who retaliated against me, to be held accountable and for my employer to repair the toxic work environment.

I accepted a settlement but was never asked what would enhance justice and actually solve the larger problem. If asked, I would have said: harasser accountability and changing the workplace environment. And if that had happened, I probably would have accepted a smaller payout.

Accountability and change don’t necessarily have money tied to them. To be clear, settlement money helps heal wounds, mental strain and anguish as well as make up for lost wages, and career derailments or demotions. Money doesn’t solve the harassment or workplace problems. Accountability and change continue to be absent from the final outcome in solving this ongoing state government workplace problem.

There have been recent pushes on the appeal board for making harassers personally accountable to help prevent harassment and protect taxpayer dollars, but more support is needed from the attorney general and for the board. Iowa needs government leaders who not only condemn bad behavior but make change to prevent it. Iowa government needs leaders who respect targets by including them in the conversation and asking what accountability means to them and how it can help enact change. Without state leaders discussing accountability for inappropriate behavior and reinforcing consequences, toxic environments will continue to thrive.

The Iowa State Appeal Board’s pivotal role of fiscal responsibility could grow to that of a change agent for toxic government workplaces. I urge board members to consider additional options to enhance settlements for targets and help change work environments. Specifically, the attorney general and the board should have a policy that they will always seek financial and professional accountability from harassers by firing them and suing them when the legal standard is met.

Targets want and deserve more than money. Iowa taxpayers deserve additional scrutiny when it comes to handing out state money, ensuring departments with problems meet basic standards before allowing settlements. Targets deserve to know that their former departments or agencies are sufficiently changed for the better. And everyone deserves to know that state workers who abuse others on state time are held accountable for their behavior to prevent the need for future settlements.

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Kirsten Anderson
Kirsten Anderson

Kirsten Anderson is a consultant, advocate for harassment-free workplaces, and author of the upcoming book, "More Than Words: Turn #MeToo into #ISaidSomething."