Unit 5 HR Director Faced Harassment Allegations Before Resignation | WGLT

Unit 5 HR Director Faced Harassment Allegations Before Resignation

Apr 5, 2019

Last month the Unit 5 school district approved a resignation agreement with its now former director of human resources and student services, James Harden.

His name went on a list of personnel action items. Harden’s office emptied. The board voted unanimously to accept an agreement to pay Harden nearly $34,000 for several months remaining on his contract and unused vacation.

Unit 5 hired Harden in July 2017 with a base salary of $126,000. That fall, sources from Unit 5 said Harden started down a path of workplace harassment.

“Dr. Harden treats women as though we are a bother. We are beneath him and he will lie to us and ignore us to not have to deal with real questions that we have as to what is being done in HR and in our office.”
-- Complaint #1 against Harden submitted in 2018

GLT met with three people who worked closely with Harden and said they felt the harassment firsthand. Their names are withheld in this report. Their experiences tell a story of improper behavior spanning more than a year and a half.

“I think they knew they had a serious problem when the director of human resources is accused of doing these things,” said John Pryor, a retired psychology professor at Illinois State University. Pryor has researched sexual harassment for 30 years and was among the first scholars to publish reports on the topic.

Sources say Harden started with small comments about sex and race, this one at a monthly staff potluck.

“Harden made comments about the foods that “white people” would eat. “‘White people are crazy. You would never catch black people eating green bean casserole at a family holiday meal. Never. White people eat disgusting shit.’”
-- Complaint #2 against Harden submitted in 2018

The comments quickly escalated to sexually charged incidents.

“While walking past this table (a large conference table placed in the hallway of the District Office) with Harden, he mentioned that I should schedule having the table moved to his home. He then went over to the table, acted as if he was clearing the table of imaginary items on top of it, then acted out having sex with his wife on top of the table.”
-- Complaint #2

Two sources told GLT they were in the hallway with a group of women when Harden pretended to be having sex with his wife on the conference table. Neither spoke out.

“Who are you supposed to report to when it’s the Director of Human Resources who is doing this?” one of the women said.

The director of HR is the person who usually manages complaints. It says so in Harden’s job duties, right next to “promote Unit 5 as a positive workplace for all employees.”

“I thought that the repeated story about the table and his pantomime of having sex with his wife, it was a bizarre story,” Pryor said. “But it makes it even more bizarre to think that the director of human resources is saying that stuff.” 

Pryor said that’s what makes such reports even more surprising.

“He ought to know better, for one thing,” Pryor said. “That's another thing you would think. Somebody who has that kind of position would have himself already undergone pretty extensive education with regard to harassment kinds of issues, things like that.”

INTERACTIVE TIMELINE: How the Harden allegations unfolded.

Eight months after the conference table incident, in May 2018, a woman filed the first formal complaint of sexual harassment against Harden, according to reports obtained by GLT.

“I was having a conversation with a friend and we were talking about the steps on our FitBits. Dr. Harden joined the conversation by saying that he makes his steps go up by--he then made a hand gesture as if he was masturbating. I said to someone in the District that if Dr. Harden does that stuff to the wrong person, as the Executive Director of HR, we are going to be in trouble.”
-- Complaint #1

But even before the formal complaint of sexual harassment, Harden’s behavior was not news to the school board or district administration. Sources said women consistently approached district leaders with their stories of harassment.

When one source approached Superintendent Mark Daniel in January 2018 about the conference table incident and other events the previous fall, the woman said Daniel dismissed her, simply saying, “We’re done.”

The three alleged victims told GLT they felt trapped in a hostile work environment with nowhere to turn and nothing changing.  

“I think that if there's any kind of complaint where somebody seems legitimately bothered by some behaviors, gender based or sex based in the workplace, or race based in the workplace, then that's sufficient reason to investigate it in some fashion,” Pryor said.

Then in June 2018, just weeks after the first letter went into Harden’s file, Unit 5 began the investigation the women had been hoping for.

The First Investigation

The district hired outside counsel, Arlington Heights-based Hodges, Loizzi, Eisenhammer, Rodick & Kohn LLP, to investigate “personnel matters.”

Five days after Unit 5 launched the investigation, a second letter accused Harden of additional actions of sexual harassment.

"He told me how much he liked having sex, and having sex with his wife."
-- Complaint #2

The investigation lasted a month. The district said Harden was on paid leave for the duration.

In a letter of reprimand placed in Harden’s personnel file, Daniel said the investigators found all complaints of sexual harassment and racial harassment credible, despite Harden’s denial of making sexual comments or gestures.

Letter of Reprimand and Directives - James Harden by Ryan Denham on Scribd

“He would tell me he loved coming to my office for ‘chocolate kisses,’ while making kissing lips motions, when he would grab Hershey Kisses from my candy dish.”
-- Complaint #2

The letter states Harden told investigators that he has called female staff members by his wife’s name when they would get “fussy.”

At some point, Harden told investigators he was the target of or overheard racially insensitive comments or messages.

Pryor said if Harden really was being racially harassed, that could have impacted his leaving the district.

“I was curious about that because it really was something that was kind of just thrown out there and not really explained with regard to what he had alleged,” Pryor said. “But in terms of his deciding to resign from this job, that could be a factor.”

In the end, Harden got what the women said they felt was a slap on the wrist and returned to work. Daniel gave him a list for remediations that included:

  • Cease making any comments or gestures of a sexual nature, even in a joking manner
  • Cease calling staff members by your wife’s name
  • Attend additional training on sexual harassment as directed by the Superintendent

According to Pryor, the response from the district is pretty reasonable.

“You don't want to go from something like that, these kinds of complaints, to immediately firing someone. Now, obviously, there seems to be information suggesting that Dr. Harden did not respond in some sort of way to the training that he changed his behavior.”

The district declined to comment on why it did not start an investigation when the women complained verbally and waited until they complained on paper.

Pryor said Harden shouldn’t have needed the additional sexual harassment training in the first place, and that Harden should have been the expert on what is and isn’t appropriate workplace behavior.

“And also, I think that it’s really kind of an abuse of the position to engage in those kinds of behaviors and think that, you know, you should be able to do so with impunity or not be concerned about these kind of things,” Pryor said.

The Second Investigation

Just when the women thought it was over, the district launched a second investigation into Harden in November 2018.

Unit 5 administrator James Harden at a school board meeting in fall 2017.
Credit Carleigh Gray / WGLT

Four months after the first investigation closed, School Board President Barry Hitchins reached out to outside lawyers for another investigation into “certain complaints” and to provide advice “concerning any legal implications arising from the complaints.”

It's unclear what prompted the second investigation. One of the women told GLT it related to complaints made by educators in the district, not just administrative staff.

As another source familiar with the situation who asked to remain anonymous put it, Harden's behavior didn't improve after the first investigation, and that Harden appeared to take it as a joke and his inappropriate behavior continued.

Pryor said he can’t get over the power relationship in this case.

“I think that the thing that makes this case something that, I'm not sure how unique it is, but it's something that as a contextual factor is important understanding, is understanding what his position was,” Pryor laughed. “That he was the Director of Human Resources and that's the last person you want involved in this kind of thing.”

The week following the launch of the second investigation, Lindsey Dickinson, the president of Unit 5’s teachers’ union, addressed the school board in open session, raising concerns about poor communication and working relationships between unnamed administrators and employees.

Dickinson confirmed to GLT her comments related to Harden's behavior and job performance, but she declined to say more.

A month later, a third complaint letter alleging harassment went into Harden’s file and the ongoing investigation.

“It was brought to my attention that James Harden, Executive Director of Human Resources and Student Services, has been referring to myself and a variety of other women employed by the district as ‘batshit crazy. Dr. Daniel did agree that this is the terminology that has been used.”
-- Complaint #3 submitted against Harden in 2018

By the time the investigation closed in January, the district spent more than $32,000 on legal fees relating to the allegations against Harden.

A source said she asked for a summary letter from the investigation, customary for all those involved, but the district never compiled one. The district confirmed that also missing from Harden’s file is a letter detailing the results of the second investigation, or any reprimands.

Two months later, Harden signed a resignation agreement where the district would pay out the remaining $27,221 on his contract plus $6,533 in unused vacation.

Pryor said the lengthy timeline is not unusual for such cases. He said it takes time to investigate and offer due process.

“I must admit, in looking at that, it felt that, well, they're basically just trying to get rid of him and they look at this as something you gotta pay to make it go away,” Pryor said. “They could be concerned about some sort of counter suits or things like that.”

Why The Wait?

The first written complaint alleging sexual harassment was filed nine months before Harden’s resignation. Asked why it took so long for the district to take action, Board President Hitchins said, “This is a personnel issue and I’m not at liberty to discuss it.”

Why did the district pay out Harden when people leave jobs all of the time?

Hitchins said, “Again, I’m going to state that this is a personnel matter and we’re not going to make a comment.”

In the legal sense, Hitchins’ hands are tied. So are Harden’s, who told GLT his attorney advised him not to comment on this report.

Harden’s resignation agreement includes a mutual non-disparagement clause. Any member of the Unit 5 school board is barred from speaking publicly about Harden. And, in turn, Harden cannot disparage the district, its board, administration, employees or students.

Those not included in this non-disparagement agreement are Daniel and district administration staff, who declined to comment, and deferred to Hitchins. Again, he is legally prevented from speaking publicly on this.

Combined with the outside legal fees, Unit 5 spent $65,885 addressing and resolving the allegations against Harden.

Allegations that, Pryor said, no director of HR should have against them.

“This guy’s the head of human resources, which is the part of the organization that should be concerned primarily about these kinds of behaviors and workplace civility that would be a part of making the workplace something that’s not a hostile environment for the people who work there,” he said.

Pryor said the district did the right thing. Harden’s gone. But he also said it shouldn’t have been a problem stemming from the HR director in the first place.

GLT's Ryan Denham contributed to this report.

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