#WeToo: Sexual harassment isn’t limited to Hollywood, Silicon Valley or D.C. It’s happening here, too.

The area between Tampa and Lakeland is farm country, sparsely populated and thick with pine forest, and so it seemed odd to Linda that the man driving her kept pulling the car off the highway.

Linda and Edward were both employees at a now-defunct national telecom company and on their way back from visiting a client in Lakeland. Fla., about an hour away.  (Editor’s note: Edward’s name has been changed, as no police report was filed in this case. Linda has decided to permit BizWest to use her first name and go on-record with her story. BizWest does not typically identify victims of assault.)

Edward had rented the car — when Linda questioned him about it, he said his was at the shop — and he insisted on driving.

But when Edward started to pull onto a side road, something was off.

On their way to that meeting in February 1996, Linda and Edward small-talked. She was getting married in three weeks. But on the way back, Edward acted strange, repeating that he had to make a stop and pulling off the highway only to get back on.

He drove onto a side road and then onto a dirt road surrounded by thick Florida pine and oak.

Linda told BizWest that Edward parked the car and leaned over to kiss her. She asked what he was doing.

He came around to her side, got in the car and locked the doors.

She said that Edward forced her on the floor of the car and made her perform oral sex on him before he raped her.

After it happened, after he drove her home with her crying in the front seat, she couldn’t speak for days.

***

It’s been 22 years since her experience, but Linda, who now runs her own consultancy in Fort Collins, is one of an untold number of women, many of whom live in Colorado, grappling with their own stories of harassment. 

The national movement against workplace harassment — which activists have shorthanded to #MeToo —  is forcing local employees and employers to look in the mirror and realize that the Front Range has not been exempt from systemic sexual harassment in the workplace.

More than 40 percent of reader responders have experienced or witnessed harassment in the workplace of some kind, according to an unscientific BizWest study. Their experience is not unusual for Colorado, which has a high number of cases reported for a state its size. And though experts say they’re seeing workplace cultures change in light of the movement, the trauma that victims experience continue to stay with them.

Sixteenth

Colorado has had 5,374 cases of sex-based charges in the workplace, from fiscal year 2009 to 2016, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That makes it the 16th highest state for cases, well ahead of states with similar populations, such as Wisconsin and Minnesota, which have had about 2,000 complaints each. Colorado has also had a similar number of complaints to Maryland, another state of comparable population size. (Editor’s note: EEOC data includes all sex-based complaints, which includes sexual harassment but also gender-based discrimination.) Texas is the leading state for complaints, with 22,378 in the eight-year span EEOC has data available, followed by Florida with 18,363, California with 14,518 and Georgia with 13,235.

In the fiscal year of 2015 to 2016, the Colorado Civil Rights Division, a branch of the state’s Department of Regulatory Agencies, had 345 complaints of sex-based discrimination as it related to employment, housing and public accomodation. Twenty-five of those were sexual harassment claims. The most recent figures, which are for fiscal year 2016 to 2017, shows the number of sex-based discrimination complaints grew to 357.

Many workplace-harassment complaints do not become part of the public record. Often, they are settled out of court, a lawsuit isn’t filed or a victim never reports their experience. These numbers from the EEOC and CCRD provide some of the best, if limited, insight into how Colorado compares when it comes to harassment.

There have also been numerous cases of criminal workplace harassment on the Front Range.

In 2017 alone:

• Nathanal David Lobato, a manager at a Boulder Jamba Juice, was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting teenage employees and domestic violence.

• Scott Roy, a co-owner of Boulder Ice Cream, was arrested twice and faces eight counts of sexual assault of employees over 15 years. In January of this year, he was sentenced to six months in jail for two counts of misdemeanor unlawful sexual contact. He will also register as a sex offender.

• Fares Al Rashed, a Greeley used-car-dealership owner, was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting an employee and human trafficking.

There are other cases that didn’t lead to arrests. Michael Mockler, the owner of Fort Collins-based Scene Magazine, which recently sold to new owners, was accused of sexual harassment, an accusation he denies. And the female-led Denver-based tech startup Havenly severed ties with VC firm Binary Capital after accusations of harassment by its co-founder and partner Justin Caldbeck.

Middle of the Road

The data lines up with the perception of the problem in Colorado.

“In general, I think we’re middle of the road here in Colorado,” said Anthony George, an employment attorney and partner at Bryan Cave in Denver. “We’re not so far ahead as the rest of the country — whether that’s good or bad — as say California where claims are brought at the drop of the hat. But we’re not so far behind in the country as some parts of the Southeast. We’re middle of the road.”

George said political leanings and ideology can play a role in how Colorado handles itself when it comes to workplace harassment. There is a Californian-like sensibility, where harassment is much more likely to be handled swiftly and after all appropriate channels, but also an Old West mentality where people prefer to be self-reliant and handle a situation themselves.

“We tend to be very blue state in downtown Denver and very red state in areas outside Denver like on the Western slope,” he said. “On balance, I think Colorado will continue as it has been and stay a purple state in its reaction to things.”

“Nothing was off-limits”

In an online survey conducted by BizWest, which asked readers several questions regarding their experience with workplace harassment, 44 percent of the 108 respondents said they had experienced harassment by a coworker.

There’s more:

• About 39 percent said they had experienced harassment by a boss or superior.

• About 7 percent said they had been assaulted by a coworker.

• 5 percent said they had been assaulted by a boss or superior.

• 32 percent of readers had witnessed the harassment or assault of a coworker.

• 32 percent have felt they had to endure harassment to protect their career.

• 37 percent felt it would jeopardize their career if they reported harassment.

But the data is just a piece of the picture, one that doesn’t show the trauma that employees, most of whom are women — 66 percent of survey respondents identified as women — have had to endure for the sake of working.

When Diane Miller, a marketing executive who today works for a construction company on the Front Range, was in her early 20s, she worked at a real estate company with a culture of harassment. A married coworker in his late 30s was allowed to repeatedly proposition Miller for sex over the course of three years.

“It was just a consistent badgering of ‘when are you doing to do this, what can I offer you, what can I do for you?,’” Miller recalled 30 years later. “And the answer was nothing, I just didn’t have any interest in doing that at all.”

Miller said while that coworker would privately solicit her for sex, another would openly harass all the women in the workplace.

“He would say things like, ‘You know what would look good on you, Diane? Me.,” Miller told BizWest.

But Miller felt she could never report her experience. If she did, it wouldn’t have mattered. The boss had created a workplace atmosphere where harassment of the female employees was completely permitted.

In fact, the boss was part of it: At one time, in telling a joke, he grabbed Miller’s breasts and squeezed them to the laughter of other male colleagues.

“That was the tone of the office,” she said. “Nothing was off-limits.”

Her experience at the real estate office was just the first of many she would experience in her 30-year career.

She had an experience she called “frightening” while working for a Colorado Springs construction company (different from her current employer). She was traveling for work with colleagues when a coworker pinned her against the wall and told her how much he wanted her. When she returned, shaking, to her other coworker seated at a nearby table, she tried to tell him what happened.

“He blew it off,” Miller recalled. “I was so pissed no one felt it was a big deal. This guy was my business associate and couldn’t care less. That was a turning point for me. I was always going to protect myself.”

“I could get you fired if I want”

Another woman, who prefers to remain anonymous, had a boss who would touch her while she worked at her retail job as a teenager.

“It was his sense of humor,” she said. (She is now a marketing executive in Northern Colorado.) “He would grab and smack your butt, make sexual jokes all the time. I wasn’t afraid of him in any way, but nowadays there is no way anyone would think it was acceptable. My assumption is over time he would have changed and adapted as time goes on.”

At another job where she was an intern, she said she was at a work lunch with female coworkers and a male superior. The man bought large amounts of alcohol on the company credit card over the long lunch.

The restaurant was trying to close, but the man wouldn’t let his employees leave, instead getting them drunk. She said he was hanging onto one woman in particular. Meanwhile, she, a teenager at the time, stayed sober. Eventually, she was ready to leave and called her father — who worked for the same company — to pick her up.

“We finally got outside to the parking lot. He [the male manager] had this woman pinned against a car. He said ‘I could get you fired if I want, come with me.’ I was watching it all.”

When her father picked her up, she told him what happened, asking him not to get the lady in trouble. Her father had her report what happened to the plant manager. The harasser was reprimanded.

In this case, the woman felt that the company handled the situation swiftly and exactly as it should have.

“There were sexual harassment signs in the women’s bathroom the next day that said what to do if something like this happened.”

It’s not just women that experience workplace harassment. Thomas Kehoe was a student at Naropa University in his 40s, about 10 years ago, when an older female student touched him inappropriately in a dance therapy class.

“She started grabbing me and dirty dancing with me. I kept taking her hands off and stepping away. This was a dance-therapy class, not a nightclub,” Kehoe, who now owns a company that makes technology for speech clinics, told BizWest.

Kehoe said it was he who was reported to the chairperson: The woman said he was interrupting her creative process. It went to the instructor to no avail.

Miller, Kehoe and the marketing executive said they would be more willing to report similar experiences today.

“I’m so much more assertive and self-confident, I understand what the rules are in business,” Miller said. “Back then, I was trying to figure out how to learn the rules. Today, they would probably be afraid to do anything. And I would find an avenue to HR to report it. I would document everything.”

Changing the culture

There are signs the #MeToo movement is forcing positive change. Workplaces are becoming aware that change needs to come to workplace culture.

“I think changes have to be at the level of culture at an organization’s DNA,” said Lynne Curry, a workplace consultant with Avitus, which has corporate offices in Aurora. “They have to change how they address harassment and what the standards are.”

In the past, Curry said, many companies might have a harassment policy that was not well enforced, with limited training sessions.

She said with #MeToo, she expects more reporting, with organizations more likely to handle situations immediately.

“If they handle it in a way they did in the past, nothing is going to happen,” she said. “In the past, a lot of people just quit companies. But I’ve had large clients now say, ‘hey, we need to change at the DNA level and change our culture.’ But I think many employers are still figuring out what to do.”

Curry said that fortunately, it takes only a few changes to get the ball rolling.

“If one person experiences a resolution, they tell their friends,” she said. “It takes one or two incidents to just be handled differently than they were in the past. I don’t think it’s a massive undertaking, but it’s not business as usual.”

Janet Savage, a Denver-based attorney for Davis Graham & Stubbs LLP who represents employers, said she is seeing companies more interested in conducting harassment training and ensuring that employees understand the behavior is not to be tolerated.

“Companies are being more proactive about training and prevention, more rigorous in addressing infractions,” she said.

A hopeful shift

A change in workplace culture is all Linda wants, in the end.

“I really hope this moment takes hold and it happens in a sustainable way that changes our culture,” she said. “I’m encouraged by a hopeful cultural shift in how men and women work together and are together in our world. I have found the #MeToo movement empowering. My hope is that these accusations women are making aren’t seen as a way of tearing men down. I would like to see acceptance by men that this is happening and women have a right to use their voice. They’re not lying, and they’ve actually had these experiences. I don’t think we can make the cultural shift without men and women.”

***

It wasn’t until after her fiance called an ambulance that brought her to a mental hospital, after the Xanax prescription, that Linda found her voice.

After a few weeks of only telling her fiance and best friend, of having to see Edward in the office every day, Linda used that voice to contact an attorney. Ultimately, she never pressed charges, telling BizWest she was afraid and was more focused on keeping her job than the criminal aspect of the rape. A lawsuit was never filed.

But her attorney worked with her and her employer to get her transferred to another office and keep her job.

That attorney eventually found that her employer, a nationwide telecom company that has since shuttered its doors, wasn’t conducting the mandatory sexual-harassment training it was required by law to have. The attorney also found that she wasn’t alone. Edward had been reported before by other female employees.

Before she was transferred to her new office, a female coworker approached Linda at her desk.

“I heard you had a problem with Edward,” the colleague said.

“Yeah,” Linda answered.

“It happened to me, too.”

Click to see related story:

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HR experts: Victims must report harassment to get relief

Improve culture with zero tolerance: Communication, training key to preventing sexual harassment in workplace

The area between Tampa and Lakeland is farm country, sparsely populated and thick with pine forest, and so it seemed odd to Linda that the man driving her kept pulling the car off the highway.

Linda and Edward were both employees at a now-defunct national telecom company and on their way back from visiting a client in Lakeland. Fla., about an hour away.  (Editor’s note: Edward’s name has been changed, as no police report was filed in this case. Linda has decided to permit BizWest to use her first name and go on-record with her story. BizWest does not typically identify victims of assault.)

Edward had rented the car — when Linda questioned him about it, he said his was at the shop — and he insisted on driving.

But when Edward started to pull onto a side road, something was off.

On their way to that meeting in February 1996, Linda and Edward small-talked. She was getting married in three weeks. But on the way back, Edward acted strange, repeating that he had to make a stop and pulling off the highway only to get back on.

He drove onto a side road and then onto a dirt road surrounded by thick Florida pine and oak.

Linda told BizWest that Edward parked the car and leaned over…