Saturday, April 01, 2006

This gourd looks like a…: Claims of sexual harassment in the Bloomington mayor’s office.

In January, former safe and civil city director Marsha Bradford filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC against the City of Bloomington, alleging sexual harassment, retaliation and offensive conduct. This story is being followed by the Herald Times, and is available here (password protected; available through the IU library website in the Main or Journalism libraries). In her claim, Bradford listed several incidences of pranks and jokes of a sexual nature that she felt to be offensive and inappropriate for the workplace. One incident, which has been cited several times in reports about this claim, occurred when the mayor, Mark Kruzan, placed two large gourds on his desk in what Bradford believed to be suggestive of a penis. According to Kruzan, the gourds were not a joke, but were a gift from a vendor at the farmers market. When he was told that someone had made a joke about the gourds, he removed them the same day.

The city’s official response, which was released to the HT on March 18th, addresses several incidents raised by Bradford:

They include the following:

• “At a staff meeting, an employee announced that his wife was expecting their second child. According to Ms. Bradford, the Mayor said something along the lines of, ‘and I thought he spent the last year solely dedicated to his job.’”

• “Employees in the Mayor’s office hid a stuffed toy in various places for co-workers to discover as a running joke. Ms. Bradford said the toy was placed in an office chair (not in her office) in a suggestive manner.”

• “Someone placed gourds that had been dropped off as a gift by a vendor from the City’s Farmers’ Market in the Deputy Mayor’s chair. Ms. Bradford was offended by the employees laughing at and calling attention to the shape of the gourds.”

• “At a staff meeting at which the Deputy Mayor had his dog, someone commented on the dog’s collar. The Deputy Mayor made a joke about the collar.”

Attorney for the city, Elizabeth Russell stated,

“Statutory and case law do not support Ms. Bradford’s attempts to turn trivial incidents into a federal employment case. Her charge, unsupported by law or facts, does an injustice to employees with legitimate, fair employment law complaints.”

Further, the city said:

“The number of incidents Ms. Bradford has brought to the City’s attention is quite small and spread over many months. None of them involved improper touching. They were in the nature of pranks or joking comments and not in any reasonable person’s view ‘severe.’ None of them were targeted at Ms. Bradford. Courts have said that indirect harassment has less of an impact on the plaintiff than direct harassment, and that the conduct has to be even more severe and pervasive to be actionable.”

The original story published on this matter, states that Bradford first issued a written complaint on April 7, 2005.

“According to the city’s response, Grundmann found that her allegations of such incidents did not constitute a “hostile environment,” but he met with Kruzan and his two chiefs of staff to let them know an employee had raised concerns.

“They made it absolutely clear that no offense was intended, and that they would see to it that any behavior that could even potentially be considered inappropriate or offensive was discontinued. None of them asked Mr. Grundmann who had made the allegations and he did not volunteer the information,” the statement reads.”

Bradford resigned on July 25th.

The city claims that these charges are really just the retaliatory actions of a disgruntled employee who was unhappy about her salary. (She made $43,000, with other salaries in the mayor’s office ranging from $48,500 to the mayor’s earnings of $79,745. Bradford also charges that her salary is the result of gender and age discrimination, but I will not discuss this portion of her claim here.)

Based on the excerpts I posted (if you were unable to access the original articles), does it sound to you like Bradford has a case for hostile environment sexual harassment?

If so, do you think that Bradford will be successful in going up against the mayor, or will his status make it difficult for her to win her claim?

If you do not think Bradford has a legitimate claim, do you think that there is still potential for this to damage Mayor Kruzan’s career? Do you think that this ever plays into individual’s reasoning when bringing frivolous claims to the EEOC?

Based on the information we have, do you think you would feel uncomfortable in the work environment described above?


Blogger Jenny Postal said...

I think that Bradford's claims of sexual harassment are ridiculous. It seems more reasonable to suggest that she was upset about other things (like possibly her salary, as Erin suggested) and that she hoped to take out her anger by getting the mayor into trouble without addressing the real issue: her salary. I think that it is reasonable to expect light, non-invasive sexual jokes to take place in an office setting because they come out naturally. In this case, I believe this is what the jokes were: light and non-invasive. Furthermore, they were not directed at anyone. I think that Bradford would have had to really be searching for things to pin on the mayor to even notice these jokes in a significant way.

In response to Erin's question that asked whether someone would do this just to try to ruin the mayor's reputation, I think that someone would and that Bradford did. So often people just read the headlines of articles, and since we're living in a time period now where few things surprise us (our former president had adulterous sexual relations in the White House, why would we be surprised about the Bloomington mayor being accused of sexual harassment?) people may just glance at the headline and interpret it as a fact. Even when people read articles, a lot of times they think that the person accused of bad behavior is just being defensive and trying to cover it up. Furthermore, just attaching an accusation to a person makes you think of the accusation when you think of him or her. So regardless of whether it was true or false, sexual harassment now goes along with the mayor's name.

10:23 PM  
Blogger Corey Meridew said...

I would echo Ms. Postal's comments about these accusations being ridiculous. When you are part of your work environment you are spending an enormous amount of time with those people. I think that most reasonable people like humor and even take part in some work place humor. At the very least a reasonable person isn't offended by other workers humor that does not involve them personally.

On a personal note in my past employment I would travel with co-workers and spend virtually every waking moment with them for whole weeks. I think most workers like to lighten the mood every once in while, whether that is with a joke or prank it happens. In my personal opinion it makes some extremely long days more bearable.

Finally, in response to one of Erin's question: "do you think that Bradford will be successful in going up against the mayor, or will his status make it difficult for her to win her claim?" I do not think that the mayor's status will hinder Ms. Bradford in this case. I feel that it is in the average person's nature to pull for the underdog thus putting the mayor at the disadvantage when claims are made. I however feel that Ms. Bradford's claims are a stretch and will be unsuccessful in her legal actions.

3:00 PM  
Blogger Professor Prenkert said...

Erin's, Jenny's, and Corey's instincts that a certain amount of "loose" joking is (must be?) tolerated in a workplace, especially when it is not directed at the claimant is basically borne out in the case law. Recall Harris v. Forklift Systems and the objective standard applied to whether alleged harassment is so severe or pervasive as to alter the terms and conditions of employment. Also, recall Justice Scalia's reminder in Oncale that Title VII is not intended or structured to be a "general civility code" for the workplace. In other words, employees are expected to put up with some types of crass, boorish, stupid, and immature behaviors from others. But, there is a point where the line is crossed. And that line drawing exercise is tough. It often leads employers to adopt zero tolerance policies and likely prompted Mayor Kruzan and his two chiefs of staff to commit to "discontinue" any behavior that could even "potentially be considered inappropriate or offensive." Notice that, while the City argues that Bradford's allegations are of the innocuous and indirect variety, the City is still quick to point out that it tried to put a stop to the innocuous and indirect behaviors. So, one wonders if, in fact, Title VII's premium on practive, preventive and corrective measures regarding harassment turns it into something close to a general civility code. Managing in the shadow of potential Title VII harassment liability creates the incentive to have a super-sanitized work culture.

At any rate, you see the City relying on the same sort of intuitive sense that Jenny and Corey cite when making the legal-ish defensive arguments that Erin quoted in her post.

4:43 PM  

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