A former staffer for the Iowa Senate Republican Caucus in Iowa has been awarded $2.2 million in damages for retaliation that will be paid from Iowa’s already-floundering general fund. Kirsten Anderson was terminated from her position as communications director for the caucus in 2012. She alleged the termination was in retaliation for her complaints about sexual harassment and a hostile work environment and the jury took her side.
Anderson described working for the caucus as a “boy’s club” where sexual jokes, as well as jokes about race, ethnicity, and religion, were constant and supervisors openly shared sexual comments about potential new hires. She also described state senators who would stop by the office and remark on other employees. Further, Anderson described a senior analyst who would show pornographic photographs to women in the office and occasionally summon the staff to look at women walking by outside his window. When the senior analyst began going through a divorce, according the Anderson, the already-hostile environment worsened, with regular usage of derogatory terms and angry or threatening comments.
Anderson’s coworkers testified to the accuracy of the allegations, with one coworker describing returning from lunch to a pornographic screensaver having been installed into her computer. Multiple coworkers admitted they did not complain or attempt to take action for fear of retaliation. One supervisor admitted he did not speak up because he claimed to have seen others retaliated against for doing so. Witnesses also described the senior analyst returning to the office and screaming at the staffers after Anderson complained about the office environment.
The lawsuit, which was decided in July 2017, was originally filed in October 2014, and Iowa State Republicans have since released a statement stating they have been addressing the issue. However, Anderson has recently filed a motion in court seeking an independent investigation into the Iowa Senate Republican Caucus, which could reveal further discriminatory issues within the caucus.
The concern, especially in cases where the environment comes to be described as a “locker room” or “boy’s club,” is that employees who feel threatened or offended by this kind of conduct may fear they will lose their jobs if they speak up. When that fear spreads to supervisory employees, systemic discrimination or harassment can go unnoticed until litigation.
Cases like these demonstrate the importance of a strong, well-communicated anti-harassment policy that is uniformly enforced throughout the company. Additionally, proper supervisor training and communication can go a long way in helping to alleviate these issues.