December 12, 2018
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Maine businesses offer ‘best practices’ for #MeToo era

Courtesy of Red Thread.
Courtesy of Red Thread.
Stephanie Brock, one of the 13 founders of MaineCanDo.org, a new website that aims to inform employees and employers about sexual harassment. Brock, also is vice president and general manager for Maine for Red Thread, a Portland-based company that makes creative work spaces. Brock was the first woman to go public with her story alleging sexual harassment by Jess Knox, co-founder of now-defunct Venture Hall, a company that helped startups grow faster. In January Knox admitted to "inappropriate behavior" toward at least two female colleagues.

Betsy Peters found herself with more questions than answers in January when she was caught in the middle of one of Maine’s most high-profile sexual harassment incidents.

Her experience as a board member of Venture Hall, whose co-founder admitted to inappropriate behavior toward at least two female colleagues, prompted her to rally businesspeople to create a website containing information for businesses, individuals and investors on how to handle sexual harassment.

The MaineCanDo website, launched Thursday, includes guidance from lawyers and sexual assault groups in Maine to help define sexual harassment and how to respond to it. The website has sections for companies, individuals and investors. It also has recommendations for bystanders who see sexual harassment.

Seventy businesses, nonprofits, investors and board members signed MaineCanDo’s pledge to improve how sexual harassment is handled in the workplace. They include the heads of Tilson Technology, Maine Association of Nonprofits, Maine Angels, Bangor Savings Bank and the Bangor Daily News.

Peters, founder of 230Trees, an adviser to innovators, said MaineCanDo came out of a question of where to go for help and what to do.

“There weren’t a lot of best practices in the era of #MeToo,” she said.

At Venture Hall, Peters received a complaint alleging sexual harassment by Jess Knox, a co-founder. Knox subsequently admitted to inappropriate behavior with at least two female colleagues. He left Venture Hall, which quickly closed down, just before it was to receive a three-year, $475,000 Kauffman Foundation grant.

Stephanie Brock, another founder of MaineCanDo, was the first woman to go public about Knox. She sent letters to the board of Venture Hall.

“[Peters] was the first to respond when I sent my letter in January,” said Brock, who is vice president and general manager for Maine for office furniture company Red Thread.

Brock said that at the time of the harassment, there was no central repository of information about what to do.

“This is the first time in Maine that information about a victim’s rights and options about reporting exist in one place,” said Cara Courchesne, a founder of MaineCanDo and communications director at the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Venture Hall’s is just one of several stories of sexual harassment in Maine that came to light this year.

In March, a U.S, District Court judge in Portland ruled that a former T-Mobile call center worker in Oakland will get a jury trial on her claim of sexual harassment against her supervisor.

In May, Maine Magazine owner Kevin Thomas left his company, Maine Media Collaborative, which said it wanted to transfer ownership from him as soon as possible after Jessie Lacey, a former designer at the company, alleged in a post on Medium.com, that Thomas of kissed her without her permission in 2010, and then bullied her for months before she left the company.

And on Wednesday, athenahealth CEO and co-founder Jonathan Bush stepped down and the company may be sold after he was accused of questionable behavior. The company operates a customer support center in Belfast.

Sexual harassment complaints to the Maine Human Rights Commission have more than doubled in recent years, MaineCanDo said. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission estimates that 75 percent of sexual harassment incidents are unreported, because people fear they’ll be fired, berated or not taken seriously, among other reasons.

Maine law requires only employers with 15 or more workers to provide an education and training program about sexual harassment. Some 97 percent of Maine businesses have fewer than 100 employees, and many have fewer than five, said Christen Graham, president of social impact consultancy Giving Strong, and another founder of MaineCanDo.

“As consumers, we are likely meeting people where we eat and recreate and at work [who are sexual harassment victims],” Graham said of its pervasiveness. “If you see something, say something. We’re giving you guidance on what to do.”

That may be a new way of thinking to many Mainers.

“Sometimes in Maine we think things that happen on a national level don’t happen here,” said Martha Bentley, director of innovation infrastructure at the Maine Technology Institute. “But the things that happened here earlier this year were a wakeup call.”

Investors and board members also need to be aware of their liability should a company they’re involved with have sexual harassment issues.

“A lot of investors are looking at their portfolios and seeing tons of risk,” said Peters.

Sam Fratoni, chair of Maine Angels, signed the MaineCanDo pledge, and said Maine Angels is revising its bylaws to add information about how to report sexual harassment violations or concerns. Maine Angels is made up of wealthy individuals who invest their own money in startups.

Fratoni, who formerly held management positions at Idexx and Hewlett-Packard, said a lot of small companies don’t get human resources training, and their culture is whatever the founder or first few employees make it.

“A lot of people feel something inappropriate happened to them but they don’t think they can change the company culture,” he said. “Individuals shouldn’t be run off in fear. A company isn’t performing well if its employees are in fear.”

To reach a sexual assault advocate, call the Statewide Sexual Assault Crisis and Support Line at 800-871-7741, TTY 888-458-5599. This free and confidential 24-hour service is accessible from anywhere in Maine. Calls are automatically routed to the closest sexual violence service provider.

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