The Guthrie Theater is toughening its policies after an internal investigation found instances of sexist comments in the workplace and one case of inappropriate physical contact.
The investigation, triggered by accusations of harassment from a former employee, found no proof of assault or any other criminal behavior. But artistic director Joseph Haj said Friday some of its conclusions were troubling.
“We were putting a great deal of attention behind some of these areas, only to find that we were off the mark in some ways,” said Haj, who has emphasized diversity and inclusion in his nearly three-year tenure.
The theater’s leaders staged two all-employee meetings — a rarity for the institution — to share new steps, including toughened enforcement of behavior, a restructuring of the human resources department, and mandatory management training. They also promised continuing attention to the scene shop, where carpenter Molly Diers resigned in January after being passed over for a promotion.
Her boss there, technical director Josh Peklo, turned in his resignation recently to take a job at the Minnesota Opera. Guthrie managers would not say whether his departure had anything to do with Diers’ pending grievance that alleges workplace harassment.
Diers said Thursday she was disappointed that the investigation didn’t specifically call for her getting her job back. Guthrie leaders said she and fellow carpenter Nate Saul, who quit in sympathy, are welcome to reapply for jobs at the theater.
When she quit, she called the scene shop “an intolerable environment” that allowed misbehavior including a joke about rape. She prompted the investigation by alleging she was “physically blocked after an assault by another man from going to [human resources] to report it.”
An independent investigator from the law firm Faegre Baker Daniels found “inappropriate physical contact,” but no evidence of a sexual assault, said Guthrie board chair Martha Aronson. She said Diers was tickled on the stomach by a male co-worker, and when she moved to report it to human resources, another male employee stood in front of her and said: “You don’t want to be that girl.” That man is no longer a Guthrie employee, Aronson added.
The Guthrie’s board turned the investigation into a broader “culture assessment” to determine possible bias in other areas. Interviewing 53 people, including Diers, it found multiple instances of inappropriate comments. And disciplinary action was taken against one unnamed manager who remarked on the appearance of female colleagues.
Haj said Friday that there have been fewer than five cases that triggered disciplinary action during his nearly three years as artistic director.
While the theater has made strides in diversity and inclusivity since Haj took charge, “we have more work to do,” Aronson said. “There were comments that the culture needs to be a more supportive one. ... Some staff members feel disenfranchised.”
The Guthrie has about 400 workers at any given time. More than half of them — including managers and supervisors — are women, Aronson said.
“This work is messy, it is lurching, it contains mistakes and missteps, it can be embarrassing; it can be eye-opening; it can be painful,” Haj told staff. “But we can be an example to one another and to society at large of what a functional, respectful, safe, collegial, nonprejudicial workplace looks like.”
Meanwhile, the Guthrie has asked the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights to dismiss a charge of discrimination filed by Diers.
“The Guthrie unequivocally denies the claims of gender discrimination, hostile work environment, and retaliation, and ... any other wrongful conduct” in its treatment of Diers, who quit in January after she was passed over for promotion.
That statement is part of a letter filed with the civil rights office last month. It cites the fact that Diers was “frequently entrusted with significant responsibilities and ... prime projects” as evidence she had no lack of opportunities. It says the Guthrie acted promptly when Diers raised complaints about sexism and established a women’s affinity group at her urging. As recently as December, she reportedly told a human resources staffer that things were “heading in the right direction,” but in interviews for a supervisory job she told her boss she did not trust him and displayed a lack of enthusiasm for the position.
In a rebuttal, Diers’ attorney, Kate Bischoff, said the Guthrie failed to take appropriate action to curb sexism in the workplace as the law requires.
The Guthrie also faces a National Labor Relations Board charge filed by Diers’ union, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, alleging the theater did not effectively enforce its policies against harassment.
Guthrie leaders declined to comment at length on the pending cases.
“The Molly piece of this has to run its own course. ... But it’s not our only issue,” said Haj, who is heading into production on “West Side Story,” a musical about intolerance. “Our focus is on paying attention to the things that are in our control and pace. We have an awful lot to do around here.”