Sexual harassment and retaliation

Sexual harassment and retaliation

September 13th, 2011 in Opinion Times

Paul Page, Chattanooga's director of general services

Sexual harassment in the workplace has been recognized for years as an inexcusable offense. It is typically addressed by termination of the offender, and by clear and more rigorous enforcement of anti-harassment rules. Yet given the circumstances surrounding city government's treatment of sexual harassment complaints against the city's director of general services, Paul Page -- a fund-raiser and ardent supporter of Mayor Ron Littlefield -- one has to wonder about city government's commitment to anti-harassment standards.

A recent letter from Sarah Smith, the area director for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, clearly puts the city's handling of sexual harassment claims under a cloud. In her letter, Smith says the city retaliated against an employee who complained of sexual harassment by Page, along with other employees, were "sexually harassed and retaliated against."

If the complaints against Page were well founded, the city's punitive actions against the complainants was inexcusable.

Following the first complaint against Page by an employee, filed on Oct. 24, 2008, Smith wrote, the city retaliated against the complainant by "reassigning her to a difference position at a different location." A second complaint by a different employee of sexual harassment by Page, Smith wrote, was filed in December 2008.

In an independent investigation of the first complaint, Page was found to have made comments about women's breasts, their sexual practices and their clothing, and to have made inappropriate jokes, this paper's city hall reporter, Cliff Hightower, wrote in a story published last Friday. Page, Hightower reported, was merely warned then that any future harassment would result in his termination.

Apparently nothing was done with regard to the December complaint, and the city's retaliation against the woman removed from Page's office remains unexplained.

City officials also refused to tell Hightower how many women made allegations of sexual harassment against Page. However, Smith's letter made it clear that complaints came from different women. She also wrote that the EEOC may pursue court action if the city does not appropriately resolve the matter.

City officials declined last Thursday to tell our reporter whether they would contest a court action by the EEOC, or take any other disciplinary action against Page. Page himself initially told Hightower that the recent EEOC letter's reference to two complaints actually referred just to one offense, not two. That was also contrary to what Smith said in the EEOC letter.

The issue should be pursued and the details clarified. If an employee was wrongly subject to retaliation for filing a sexual harassment complaint, that unjust action should be reversed. If other female employees were harassed by Page as Smith's letter claims, that finally should be investigated and appropriate action should be taken.

If Mayor Littlefield's office treated the allegations against Page inappropriately, that, and the reasons for it, should be made clear and properly addressed. There should be no political shelter for employees who subject others to sexual harassment.