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Subtle and unwelcome: Insurer emphasizes training to prevent sexual harassment

It can be something subtle.

From an offhanded comment that offends somebody to something more obvious like a physical threat, workplace harassment costs thousands of people their jobs each year.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), there were almost 27,000 workplace harassment allegations filed nationwide last year under all statutes, including sexual harassment charges.

One high-profile harassment recently was Norwood Teague, who resigned from his post as athletics director at the University of Minnesota on Aug. 7.

Teague admitted that he sexually harassed two female university employees. Since then, other women, including a Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter who covered the Gophers' men's basketball team, have said they, too, were harassed by the former AD.

The EEOC website lists harassment as "unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age, disability or genetic information."

Harassment becomes unlawful where enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition to stay employed or the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile or abusive, the EEOC website says.

Offensive jokes, slurs, name calling, physical assaults or threats, intimidation, ridicule or mockery, insults or put-downs, interference with work performance, and offensive objects or pictures could all be considered workplace harassment.

Teague's dismissal is not the only high-profile incident of workplace harassment in the region. In 2000, Richland County, in southeast North Dakota, faced a lawsuit from Jewel Jones-Van Tassel, who claimed she did not get a job within the county because she was a woman.

Jones-Van Tassel said a committee of state and county emergency management directors selected her as the most qualified candidate, but county and city officials wouldn't hire her because she is a woman. She and the county agreed on a $1.2 million settlement, the largest payout at that time paid by the North Dakota Insurance Reserve Fund (NDIRF).

Witnesses in Jones-Van Tassel's case alleged a history of sexual harassment and gender discrimination, both subtle and blatant, by some of the county's top officials. The accusations prompted then-Gov. John Hoeven to removed two elected officials from office, which was the first time in more than a decade that the governor has removed someone from elected office.

Steve Spilde, CEO of the Insurance Reserve Fund, said workplace harassment claims are not all that frequent, but they can have quite severe consequences. NDIRF is a not-for-profit organization which provides liability, automobile and inland marine coverage to public entities in the state, such as cities, counties townships, school districts, park districts and more. The settlements in workplace harassment claims can be quite expensive for his organization.

Spilde said he's seen the number of claims of harassment level off and even decreased in recent years. That was after a period of more claims being made in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

"We all know we're dealing with human beings here and we're never going to get 100 percent no claims on this or any other area, but we felt we could make some inroads in reducing the number of claims, and I think we have," Spilde said.

He thinks the decrease is because more employers and employees are aware of harassment and are taking more measures to stop it.

NDIRF provides a number of different avenues for their nearly 2,500 members, including developing tools for human resources personnel handbooks and attending state and regional conferences on human resources topics.

"We have quite a bit of emphasis on training," Spilde said. "Obviously, these claims, while they might not be frequent, they can be expensive — even when you win. Our focus is on trying to avoid the claims and we have a strong commitment to provide knowledge to people and keep them out of trouble."

According to the EEOC website, people often keep quiet when they're being harassed because they're afraid of retaliation, embarrassed or humiliated. Outside of monetary damage, harassment can also have emotional and psychological damage to the people who are harassed.

"It's not something that I think can ever fully be stopped, but I think we're making great strides," Spilde said.

Wade Rupard

Wade Rupard is a reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. Rupard is a 2014 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and is originally from Normal, Ill. 

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