TAMPA — Tanja Vidovic, the female firefighter who recently won a high-profile discrimination case against the city of Tampa, joined with U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor and others Tuesday to call for a better process for reporting sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace.
"We need to make our voices heard and to make the process of filing any kind of harassment complaint easier — but more importantly, safer," Vidovic told about 75 people at Hillsborough Community College’s Dale Mabry Campus.
Vidovic, 36, shared her story as part of a panel organized by Castor, D-Tampa, aimed at both employers and employees of small businesses.
The former Tampa Fire Rescue firefighter sued the city of Tampa in March 2016 after making dozens of complaints to the city’s human resources department, including co-workers asking her for sex, male firefighters locking her out of the co-ed bathrooms, a supervisor citing her pregnancy as a reason to dock her annual evaluation and being told she needed to pump her breast milk in a hazardous decontamination room.
Vidovic said she later found out that human resources officials would send her email complaints back to supervisors at Tampa Fire Rescue. Nothing was private, she said, and nothing was done to stop the harassment.
"Not only did the city of Tampa’s HR department not help, they made everything worse," Vidovic said. "I was told to stop complaining."
Vidovic’s story is not unique, Castor said. The current political and social climate is charged with seemingly weekly revelations of sexual harassment and discrimination complaints aimed at movie stars, politicians and members of countless industries.
Cases like Vidovic’s, coupled with the national #MeToo movement, have brought not only awareness to the topic but a growing frustration with the status quo, said Ann Madsen, executive director of the Helen Gordon Davis Centre for Women in Tampa.
"What I’ve found is the problem is even more pervasive than even I ever thought," Madsen said.
Madsen, Vidovic and others on the seven-woman panel discussed best practices employers can use to create healthy work environments and options for employees who encounter discrimination in the office.
Representatives from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission spoke to attendees about the process for reporting harassment, which is not quick or easy. Before a person can file a complaint with the EEOC, he or she first needs to make an internal report with their company, said Evangeline Hawthorne, director of the EEOC’s Tampa office.
"Of course, you can rebuff advances, but you have to complain," Hawthorne said. "That’s very, very critical."
If nothing changes after someone has voiced a complaint, then he or she can go to the EEOC and file an inquiry.
But because retaliation is often a part of these cases — the EEOC saw more instances of retaliation than any other type of discrimination in 2017 — people are often hesitant to make a formal complaint to their employer, Hawthorne said.
"Unfortunately, we cannot prevent it, but we provide recourse if it does happen," Hawthorne said. "As an employee, it’s very important that you be direct in letting the harasser know the conduct is unwelcome and that you complained about it."
Nealy Wheat, the chief financial officer for the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, stressed that it’s important for businesses to not only have a policy in place, but to communicate it to employees regularly. It does no good, she said, if it sits on the shelf somewhere and is ignored.
Wheat recommended annual training by a third party so every employee, including managers, can take part in the conversation.
If an employee does make a complaint, Wheat said, it’s imperative that the business adhere to the policy it has in place. Not only is it necessary from a management point of view, but it’s important that other employees see the company is earnest about quashing harassment and discrimination.
"Otherwise, what kind of example are you setting for your other employees if they feel, ‘Oh, she got in trouble because she complained?’?" Wheat asked. "They’re not going to come forward, and that’s not okay. It’s not the right thing to do, and it’s not legal."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.