Norwood Teague’s alleged sexual improprieties and the way the University of Minnesota responded are textbook examples in the wrong way to handle complaints of sexual harassment. Unfortunately, this method–sweeping it under carpet–the seems to be the norm both in academia and in the business world. In many ways, it is not much different than the way the Catholic Church has handled sext abuse complaints against priests.
What Teague apparently did most recently that led to his resignation was legally wrong. Sending unwanted sexual messages, pictures, or propositions to those with whom you work is wrong and it is actionable as sexual harassment under federal civil rights law. Doing the same to people with whom you do not work is not a civil rights issue but nonetheless actionable under general harassment or criminal law in some cases, but that is not is what is at issue here. Instead the question at work is simple: What did the employer known and when, and how did it respond.
Under federal law, if an employee (it does not matter what level, be it co-worker, supervisor, or CEO) sexually harasses another employee, employers generally not legally liable for the behavior of the employee if they take appropriate action. Upon receiving a complaint proper action could be dismissal of the accused employee, but it could also be other appropriate remedial action to address the matter. What is appropriate depends on the factual circumstances. What is not appropriate action is doing nothing, ignoring it, or sweeping it under the carpet. Take appropriate action and courts will not hold employers liable as a rule.
Employers are generally responsible for the actions of their employees, especially if they knew about their bad behavior, or were negligent in not knowing about it. Often what happens when it comes to sexual harassment is that employers simply pay a victim to remain quiet. Instead of going to court to face legal charges publicly, employers settle out of court, asking the victim to keep silent and not discuss the issue. Legal settlements make sense, but they often do not solve the problem. Too often victims are compensated and hushed but the employer does nothing to punish the harasser or correct the problem. Instead, the employer simply throws money at the victim but nothing changes to alter the hostile environment, creating a ticking bomb that will eventually go off again in the future. Or, what sometimes happens is that the employer and the accused employee reach a private settlement, agreeing not to say anything about the charges, freeing up the latter to move on to another workplace where the problem may repeat itself.
The private settlement of sexual harassment disputes may make a lot of sense in each case, but collectively it does little if anything to solve the problem of sexual harassment and hostile environments. Yes, maybe enough private settlements and pay outs may convince employers they need to change their culture, but equally likely they may come to view paying for sexual harassment as a cost of doing business and move on. Similarly, the employee private dismissed learns what at the end of the day? It is okay to harass?
If the Star Tribune news accounts are correct, the University of Minnesota and Virginia Commonwealth University paid out $300,000 to settle past claims against Teague. Minnesota was on notice of his behavior, but what did it choose to do–pay out, hush up victims, and little else. This creates real problems for the U since it was cognizant of Teague’s behavior but hushed it up (of course it does not help that he was the athletic director, seemingly protecting him because of the special status sports and athletes enjoy in many colleges and across society). In some ways, only a small step of difference between what it did and the St Paul-Minneapolis Archdioceses knowing about abusive priests and instead of doing something, simply transferred them elsewhere.
There needs to be a better process. Privately paying off victims or dismissing aggressors does little to solve the basic problem of sexual harassment. Instead it often condones the practice but doing little to change institutional or individual behavior. This is the real lesson of Norwood Teague story, how the way we are responding to sexual harassment is failing to reform institutions or individual behavior.