Hackett lawsuit shines a bright light on employment practices

By Karen du Four des Champs

For The Beachcomber

I was in the middle of updating a client’s harassment in the workplace policy and customizing my over 100th training on the topic when I heard the news of Lanora Hackett’s win in her lawsuit against Vashon Island Fire & Rescue (VIFR).

Despite the gains we have made over the decades, I know firsthand from the various client trainings I’ve delivered since 2001 that harassment in the workplace hasn’t gone away; it just rears its ugly head in often more subtle forms of inappropriate, prohibited and unlawful behaviors.

I still cringe when I hear employees ask why “a screensaver depicting a scantily clothed person” contributes to a hostile work environment, just as I cringed when Jason Everett stated in his column in The Beachcomber that one of the employees at VIFR was “not in a position to discriminate in any manner whatsoever as he is not involved in the hiring process.” All members of a staff — employees, volunteers and board members — are responsible for creating and maintaining either a respectful workplace or one riddled with hostility, retaliation and discrimination. The latter is not created solely by a hiring manager’s bad acts. How were VIFR board members — fiduciary agents to us taxpayers — ensuring effective leadership over the years?

Harassment’s subtle forms can be difficult to identify, especially when observed in isolation. Compounded, however, they describe a pattern of hostility occasionally exhibited by “clueless” individuals or, more often, initiated by those who feel a sense of entitlement to commit such egregious conduct. The relevant laws, however, don’t rely on the intent by the alleged offenders, but by the impact experienced by targeted employees, co-workers and the organization as a whole.

I often tell my audiences: “Your employer can’t control your thoughts, but they can control your actions” — in the form of expectations, discipline and follow-through. The lawsuit’s verdict asserts VIFR failed to control the retaliatory and hostile-work environment behaviors of their paid staff. So have all the inappropriate posters been removed? Offensive screensavers deleted? Retaliatory comments documented in relevant personnel files?

A revision of existing policies is an important first step, but transforming a hostile workplace culture takes time, just as making personal changes takes time. Anyone who has ever tried to quit smoking or lose weight knows it doesn’t happen overnight. The same is true with an individual changing his or her behavior or an organization changing its culture — although in the latter it takes longer and is harder because an organization is made up of all those individuals whose behaviors need to transform individually, as well as the institutional “group think.”

This costly and embarrassing scar to VIFR isn’t just a call to action, but a wake-up call to every business, organization and agency on Vashon to not only be in compliance with federal, state and county laws but also to “walk their talk.”

To transform a workplace culture from hostility and retaliation to one where employees are treated with respect, not only do policies need to be enacted, but everyone needs to be held accountable: staff, volunteers, interns and board members. The law only sets the floor of expectations of behavior; policies and an organization’s culture can set the ceiling.

Lanora Hackett is in many ways Vashon’s Lilly Ledbetter, who captured headlines for her groundbreaking battle against Goodyear Tire and whose name now graces a fair pay restoration act signed into law by President Obama.

Hackett, by taking on VIFR, championed the rights of gender-bias everywhere, especially in our sometimes insular community where it takes even more courage, tenacity and commitment to right a wrong. And she did so not only for herself, but for former employees like paramedic Gina Ball and as a catalyst for change in that vital organization. I thank her for turning the light bulb on in workplaces all over our Island.

— Karen du Four des Champs is a human resources professional and organizational and board development consultant.

More on the law

Who has to comply with discrimination-related laws and what are they?

Compliance thresholds exist for employers with eight-plus employees, organizations in King County-owned buildings, labor organizations, publishers or contractor(s) providing services to King County. See a chart issued by the Seattle Office for Civil Rights for more information. Only one employee? Laws an employer must follow can be found at the Northwest Women's Law Center site.

Or to read about the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, visit this page at the Northwest Women's Law Center site.

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