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'Weinstein effect' pushes commission to consider sexual harassment training

Decatur Daily - 12/7/2017

Dec. 07--Amid a growing list of sexual assault, abuse and harassment allegations against powerful men nationwide, Morgan County Commission Chairman Ray Long thinks it may be time for county workers to undergo a refresher course on sexual harassment policies.

"I just think with the climate the way it is, it's something we definitely need to look at," Long said. "We want to make sure people know where the line is. A lot of times people may be joking, but both sides may not think it's a joke."

Long said he expects some form of mandatory sexual harassment training for county employees in the coming months, though final details had not been worked out.

In addition to reminding employees of the policies, Long said he wants to ensure all workers know how to make a complaint if they need to.

Long said he was not aware of any sexual harassment complaints and that the training is the result of heightened awareness and increased likelihood that a claim could be filed.

Will Beckum, an employment attorney at Beckum Law in Birmingham, said sexual harassment complaints handled by his firm have increased substantially in recent months due to what he called the "Weinstein effect," in reference to film executive Harvey Weinstein.

"It's probably the most common complaint that we deal with," he said, noting victims have been more willing to come forward since several high-profile complaints made the news nationally.

Weinstein was fired from The Weinstein Company, which he co-chaired, and expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences after more than 50 women made allegations of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape against him.

Beckum said taking steps to refresh workers on the county's sexual harassment policy could limit the county's exposure to liability in the event a complaint is made.

Too often, he said, employers attempt to sweep complaints under the rug because they fear the liability, but that can expose the company to more risk. If employees aren't advised of open-door policies or how to make complaints, they may fear retaliation, according to Beckum.

"If people fear retaliation, that's when it can turn into a situation with multiple employees making claims to the EEOC," he said.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, is the federal agency that administers and enforces civil rights laws against workplace discrimination.

Additionally, Beckum said, if employers failed to respond adequately and quickly to complaints, the offender may be emboldened, leading to more egregious behavior that exposes the employer to even more liability.

District 2 Commissioner Randy Vest said he agreed with Long's training proposal.

"Any time there is a heightened awareness of that, I think we can do a little more than what we're doing," he said.

The county's employee handbook has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment of any kind. "We would not tolerate anything like that," Long said.

Long said he is hopeful the training can be offered to the county pro bono by an area law firm. Vest said they also may ask the county's liability insurer to offer training at no cost, because it would help mitigate the insurer's exposure to liability.

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evan.belanger@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2439. Twitter @evanbelanger.

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(c)2017 The Decatur Daily (Decatur, Ala.)

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