Last Updated 31 Jul 2021

Meeting the Challenge of Sexual Harassment

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Meeting the Challenge of Sexual Harassment At an office of Goldman, Sachs and Company in Boston, some male employees allegedly pasted photos of bare-breasted women on company newsletters, next to biographies of new female employees (suggesting that the photos were pictures of the new staff members). Copies of the newsletters were circulated around the office. Sexist literature such as “The Smart Man’s Creed or Why Beer Is Better Than Women” (“After you’ve had a beer, the bottle is still worth a dime”) was allegedly also distributed.

Kristine Utley, a former Goldman sales associate, has made these allegations in a suit charging that the environment at Goldman, Sachs constitutes sexual harassment. Fired for refusing a transfer to a New York office, she is suing to gain reinstatement and damages and to eliminate the harassment. Joanne Barbetta has filed a similar suit seeking damages for harassment caused by an environment that she asserted “was poisoning my system. ” Ms.Barbetta reports that during her tenure as a clerk at Chemlawn, male employees circulated pornographic magazines and pinup posters. She viewed a slide presentation that included suggestive pictures (e. g. , a nude woman) put there, according to management, “to keep the guys awake. ” After these experiences and continual breast-grabbing by a male employee, Ms. Barbetta quit. Marie Regab, formerly an 18-year employee of Air France, has filed similar charges concerning the Washington office where she worked as a salesperson.

She alleges that several characteristics of the office environment combined to create harassment, including propositions by one of her bosses, circulation of Playboy and Penthouse magazines in the office, and open discussion of sexual activity by male employees. “It was sickening and an insult to women in the office,” she claims. Ms. Regab was fired; she is suing to gain reinstatement, for $1. 5 million in damages, and to eliminate the harassment in the office.

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These three situations are examples of a growing number of suits being filed by women who charge that a sexist environment in the workplace constitutes sexual harassment and that their employers are therefore liable. Plaintiff actions in this area have been fueled by the Supreme Court’s ruling that sexist behavior that creates an “intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment” is sexual harassment and violates Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Court’s ruling has spurred an increasing number of companies to act to revent sexual harassment in the workplace and to deal with if effectively when the problem occurs. Other factors have also triggered company action. Employers are realizing that the costs of harassment can be high in terms of lowered productivity, absenteeism, and turnover. One study of female employees in the federal government concluded that the government loses about $200 million each year to the effects od sexual harassment. Costs can also be high if an employee sues. Even if the plaintiff opts for an out- of-court settlement, the costs of these settlements are often in six figures, and it’s the company that pays.

Companies are also realizing that sexual harassment is a very real issue in today’s workplace; from 20 to over 50 percent of working women have experienced sexual harassment (and so have at least 15 percent of male employees). Thus, companies are tackling the issue; the more effective strategies developed so far contain four primary features: Training programs the educate employees concerning the meaning of sexual harassment and the behaviors that constitute a hostile and harassment workplace: Training is especially important simply because men and women often differ in their perception of what constitutes harassment.

Most training is in the form of seminars and workshops, often with films and videos. Philip Morris USA conducts a mandatory training program for its field managers that include viewing a video called “Shades of Gray”. General Motors conducts an awareness seminar for employees and offers this benchmark for judging the appropriateness of office conduct: “would you be embarrassed to see your remarks or behavior in the newspaper or described to your own family? ” Du Pont has developed one of the most comprehensive antiharassment programs in business (begun in 1981).

Recently, the corporation added a $500,000 course on personal safety, rape, and harassment prevention primarily for its female employees (many of whom are moving into traditionally male jobs at Du Pont such as agricultural products sales). The course offers no-nonsense advice on how to handle a harasser. For example, if a male customer fondles a women’s knee, Du Pont advises that she “firmly remove his hand . . . and then say, ‘Let’s pretend this didn’t happen. “If she receives a verbal proposition, Du Pont advises that she say, “No, I wouldn’t want our business relationship to be jeopardized in any way. About 1,600 employees have completed the course. Like General Motors, Du Pont offers its employees a guideline for evaluating their behavior. Said a Du Pont spokesman, “We tell people, it’s harassment when something starts bothering somebody. ” Some other companies provide advice concerning how to handle harassment. One popular piece of advice: Document the incident as soon as possible by describing on paper what happened in full detail and talking to someone informally about the incident.

A relatively mild case of harassment can be handled by taking to the harasser, explaining what he or she did , how it made you feel, and telling the harasser to stop. In a more serious situation, communicating these points via a certified letter sent to the harasser, with the victim keeping a copy, is often recommended (and reportedly proves to be quite effective). An internal complaint procedure: Ideally, the procedure provides for fast action and confidentiality and ensures that the employee can report the problem to a manager who is not involved in the harassment.

Some companies encourage employees to report a problem to their immediate supervisor but also designate an individual (often a woman) in the HR department as someone employees can speak with in cases where the immediate supervisor is involved in the problem. To ensure speedy action, some companies require that an investigation begin within 24 hours after the harassment complaint has been reported. Ideally, the procedure also stipulates how investigations will be conducted. Speedy, corrective action that solves the problem: If the investigation supports the employee’s claims, corrective action is quickly taken.

Such action can range from simply talking to the harasser to discharge, depending on the severity of the offense. One federal agency requires offending employees to publicly apologize to the individuals they’ve harassed. Staffing changes also sometimes occur. Our New York bank faced a problem of a highly talented male executive who generated much profit for the bank-and also several costly EEOC complaints from his secretaries. The bank solved the problem by assigning the executive an all-male secretarial staff.

Corrective action is particularly important because it communicates to both victims and potential offenders that harassment will not be tolerated. A written and communicated antiharassment policy. The written policy is documented and distributed to all employees. The policy contains a definition of harassment, the company’s position prohibition harassment, the grievance procedure, and penalties. While a growing number of companies are implementing antiharassment policies, the courts have yet to establish consistent record concerning the issue of “hostile environment” as illegal harassment.

For example, a federal district court in Michigan dismissed a claim by Vivienne Rabidue that sexual posters and obscene language in her office at Osceola Refining Co. constituted illegal sexual harassment. However, Joanne Barbetta has won the first round of her court battle with Chemlawn. The judge hearing her complaint rejected Chemlawn’s motion to dismiss the suit; he has ordered Ms. Barbetta’s case to trial. Chemlawn is expected to present a vigorous defense, asserting that the men involved in the newsletter incident have been disciplined and that the situations Ms.Barbetta cites fall far short of creating a hostile, harassing environment because they occurred “over the course of two years. ”

Questions Assumes that you are an HR executive for a company that manufactures and sells agricultural products (for example, fertilizers and grain feeds). The company’s workforce of 1,200 employees is 70 percent male and 30 percent female. Drawing from this case and the chapter content, develop an antiharassment policy and program. What are the major challenges you see in implementing the program?

Many experts assert that reported cases of sexual harassment represent only a small percentage of the total number of incidents that actually occur in the workplace. If their assertion is true, why do so many cases go unreported? How would your HRM policy on harassment address this situation? As research indicates, people differ widely in their perceptions of sexual harassment. What is a harmless remark to one individual can be an annoying, even infuriating insult to another. In your view, what separates harmless conduct from harassing behavior? In the same vein, when does a sexist environment become a hostile, harassing one?

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