The allegation of sexual harassment concerns the relationship between a buyer and a salesman working for the supplying company. Jane Thompson, a longtime successful employee of the Purchasing Department at the Propmore Corporation, accused Bill Smith of Airgoods Corporation of sexually harassing her.
The harassment, in her words, happened at lunch where she went on Bill’s invitation. Jane reported to her direct supervisor, Head of the Purchasing Department at the Propmore Corporation. She insisted on removal of Airgoods from the list of suppliers, informing the company’s president of an employee’s behavior, and suing Bill Smith through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
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Don’s attempt to do a preliminary investigation did not yield many results. His conversation with Bob Peters, Jane’s colleague, ended with Bob’s statement that the thing was being “blown out of proportion” (Madsen, Flaming, n.d., p.5). Ann Perkins, the HR manager, was not sure Propmore had responsibility to deal with the case since Bill was not their employee and harassment did not happen on the company’s premises. Don’s investigation of Jane’s personal file revealed that she had already reported to her former employer a case of sexual harassment, an action that had most probably served as a basis for her termination despite the alleged ‘unsatisfactory work’ claim.
The final blow for Don was the call from Bill’s supervisor Joe Maxwell. Obviously unwilling to lose a client in the face of the Propmore Corporation and its Purchasing Department, he tried to talk Don into putting the issue to rest. Joe promised to put another person to this assignment and suggested that Jane may calm down in a couple of days. Joe insisted that there had been no harassment going on.
There are a number of issues involved in the case. From the individual perspective, Don faces such issues:
- Does his idea of leadership embrace helping employees with such delicate problems as sexual harassment, in the light of facts being unclear?
This is a highly personal question. It seems that Don has to decide since otherwise there is nobody who can take responsibility.
- What is more important to him as a manager, retaining the trust of a valuable employee like Jane or losing a good contract with Airgoods?
Don should not take the loyalty of a single employee in his department lightly, especially one who is valuable and has been with the organization for 10 years. Nor should he neglect a long-term relationship with a supplier.
From the organizational perspective, issues are even more diverse:
- Does the Propmore Corporation have an obligation to employees to protect them from sexual harassment by other stakeholders and their representatives? Website
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on its website provides basic information about sexual harassment where it states that harassment can be perpetrated by a non-employee. In this case Bill’s action can constitute a case of sexual harassment even if he is employed at Propmore.
- Does this responsibility extend to cases that happen outside the company’s premises?
The EEOC nowhere states that the instances of harassment should occur on the employer’s premises.
- How much weight should be given to Jane’s words and how much to Bill’s account?
The EEOC encourages those investigating a sexual harassment case to explore all possibilities to find corroborative evidence of harassment. These can be the accounts of employees to whom Jane complained directly after the meeting or those that noticed her distraught feelings that day. The Commission believes that “contemporaneous complaint by the victim would be persuasive evidence both that the conduct occurred and that it was unwelcome” (EEOC, 1990). In this case, Jane’s reaction should be appropriate evidence.
- Is an investigation needed?
The EEOC states the obligation of employers in this way: “The employer should take immediate and appropriate corrective action by doing whatever is necessary to end the harassment, make the victim whole by restoring lost employment benefits or opportunities, and prevent the misconduct from recurring” (EEOC, 1990). In the same paragraph, however, the Commission underscores the action that should be taken concerning employees. However, a company should investigate the case regardless of subsequent decision to trade or not with Airgoods.
- What is more important, profits from a good contract or attention to the individual employee’s needs?
The company has responsibilities to multiple stakeholders, including investors and employees. Therefore, managers have to decide whose interests are weightier at this point.
- Will supporting Jane improve employees’ loyalty in the entire organization?
Leaving cases like that uninvestigated is likely to lower morale. Employees will realize that they are only a way to achieve goals and are not valued as individuals.
From the societal viewpoint, the range of issues can be represented in the following way:
- What is permissible and what is not in professional relations?
This is decided in each community and each professional sphere individually. Most salespeople would agree most probably that flirting with buyers is hardly a sound business practice and even less so harassing them.
- When can an individual say “stop” to sexual advances?
Under the law, an individual can say “no” at any point. However, it is important to let people know from the start that their behavior is offensive and, if possible, use the company’s internal grievance mechanisms to let the harasser understand the negative side of his/her actions.
- What legal action is permissible if harassment occurs?
The victim can file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to request an investigation and prosecution of the harasser. The claim should be filed in accordance with appropriate guidelines. In some states, one can also turn to the state’s fair employment agency (for example, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing in California (Equal Rights Advocates, Inc., 2006)). If the employer fails to investigate the matter properly and take appropriate action, the employee can file a lawsuit with a federal or local court, but only after failing a complaint with the EEOC or fair employment agency.
- What constitutes an act of harassment and distinguishes it from simple flirtation?
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the EEOC has developed its own definition of sexual harassment that includes the following information:
Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment (Wyatt, 2000).
This definition applies to all US companies and other types of organization. Harassment can be further evaluated from the viewpoint of whether it affects an individual’s employment, interferes with performance or creates a bad environment.
The first, most immediate solution should a thorough investigation of the incident. This alternative has the following advantages:
- It will allow Don to gather considerably more information on the subject that will be helpful in making a decision;
- Even if it does not help resolve the conflict, it will let other employees understand that the company is strict about sexual harassment
- Since it involves non-employees, the company can let its workforce know that it is ready to defend their interests in front of others.
- The employees may be distracted from their responsibilities by discussion of such a delicate matter.
From the ethical viewpoint of utilitarianism, it is more appropriate to follow this option since it will lead to a more balanced decision on the issue and help retain the loyalty of the entire workforce, not just one person. The distraction is only a minor disadvantage. From the deontological point of view, if the company commits to being responsible for its employees, it should keep on with the practice of caring for them when they encounter disrespectful and hostile treatment on the part of other parties involved in the business process.
Another obvious alternative is to hush up the matter, waiting for Jane to calm down. The positive side, from the utilitarian perspective, are the preservation of a good relationship with the supplier. Don’s decision to harsh the matter up will obviously satisfy Joe and Bill. On the other hand, the climate in the department may be ruined forever as Jane is likely to feel that her interests had been neglected and her feelings discarded as useless trash. This can have an overall depressing effect on employees’ morale.
Someone pursuing a deontological ethical code would disagree with such a decision since it conflicts with the deontological concept of set a priori duties. The Propmore Corporation and Don in particular have certain obligations to Jane, namely, to protect her from sexual harassment and violation of her rights even by non-employees. There is also an obligation to the rest of the workforce to maintain an atmosphere in which they will not experience adverse influences.
One can also contemplate the issue from the viewpoint of retributive justice. If a misdeed occurred, who should be punished for it and to what extent? From the utilitarian viewpoint on retributive justice, punishment should be such as to prevent the future behavior (deterrent effect), provide rehabilitation and ensure security of all others by isolating wrongdoers. In this case, it might be best to remove Bill from the position in which he will be in constant contact with Jane since it will evidently give him plenty of opportunities to interact with her and further aggravate what can be seen as their conflict. At the same time, the punishment should offer him room for correction and rehabilitation.
Retributivism, on the other hand, would emphasize the need to punish Bill just because harm had been done. Doing otherwise would mean disrespecting Jane and the perpetrator himself. In fact, it would make sense to punish the entire Airgoods Corporation that failed to educate its workforce to mind their behavior and find contact with potential clients. The punishment should be proportionate with the misdeed and can be finally defined after an investigation.
From the viewpoint of restorative justice, the perpetrator should do actions that will help to restore to the victim what he or she lost as a result of the wrong action. In this case, there is hardly a good way for Bill to repair the damage he did to Jane. The action can come from the management of the Airgoods Corporation if they decide to make her some sort of formal apology and perhaps a conciliatory present.
Decision and Recommendation.
The most attractive alternative at this point seems to conduct a thorough investigation of the matter, questioning Jane’s colleagues, herself, Bill, Bill’s colleagues and customers if possible so as to gain a more or less comprehensive picture of the matter. This investigation is justified on both utilitarian and deontological grounds. From the utilitarian perspective, it will help retain the employee’s loyalty and maintain an overall positive atmosphere in the company.
From the deontological viewpoint, it will fulfil the obligation to Jane and other employees. It can also be said that it will fulfil the obligation to Bill because it will help him justify his behavior if it was indeed more or less innocent and help managers make a decision on the basis of sufficient information. Besides, from the legal standpoint, failure of the corporation to conduct an appropriate investigation can serve later as a basis for Jane’s lawsuit against the employer.
Should Bill be found guilty of sexual harassment, it seems more desirable that the two companies cooperate to find a solution that will satisfy both parties. Removal of the Airgoods Corporation from the list of bidders because of unethical behavior of one of its employees will punish two many parties that are not implicated in the issue – the investors of both companies, Airgoods’ management, Propmore’s purchasing department since they may forfeit bonuses for good performance if it is evaluated through the quality of their contracts.
Therefore, it is recommended that the company remove Bill from this contract while Jane remains in her position. In case Jane’s allegations prove untrue, the reverse is probably a good option: Jane is removed from her position while Bill remains in his.
Besides, if the problem occurred, some type of general corporate action is necessary. Such an action would allow the management to involve all employees in a meaningful discussion of the incident. Most importantly, the company can prepare employees for dealing with such incidents in the future.
The implementation of the plan should occur in the following stages:
- The appointed manager (HR manager or any other person suited for the task) should thoroughly question all parties that can shed light on the occurrence. These parties can involve Jane’s colleagues, Jane, Don, Bill, Bill’s colleagues and supervisors etc. in accordance with the EEOC’s guidelines, special value should be given to the testimony of those who could observe Jane’s reaction directly after the meeting (EEOC, 1990).
- If the investigation finds that Bill is not guilty, no further action is necessary. If he is found guilty of sexual harassment, the Propmore Corporation can negotiate the further steps with their colleagues from Airgoods. Overall, the steps are as follows:
- Remove Bill from the contract
- Reprimand him for his actions
- Put him on probation with the threat of discharge if such conduct is repeated
It is obvious that these steps can only be taken by Airgoods’ management, but Propmore’s management can put pressure on Joe Maxwell and others, using their power as customers. They can, for instance, refuse to negotiate a contract if it is managed by Bill Smith.
- Conduct training for employees on issues of sexual harassment, dealing with definition of sexual harassment, company policies, and legal procedures for reporting. The course should prepare employees both to understand when they can be accused of committing harassment and how they should respond to harassment by others. This measure can be constrained by organizational resources in terms of funds necessary to finance the course and time employees will need to devote to it. However, it should not be a huge expense and should be affordable to the company.
The evaluation of the proposed strategies will depend on the effect it can have on employees’ motivation. The strategy of taking a harsh stand toward abusers is likely to add more to the motivation of the female employee population, and thus the effect of this policy will be greater in departments and organizations where women make up a large part of the workforce. Demographic changes in the Propmore Corporation’s workforce are likely to impact the effectiveness of the proposed policies.
The more equal balance of genders in future business environments is also likely to impact issues of sexual harassment. While today women constitute a minority that prone to be mistreated by men who are in the majority, there is a greater likelihood that they can be roughly half of the workforce soon.
This may make men equally or at least more likely to become victims of sexual harassment themselves and will probably increase understanding for such issues. Inside the company, an improvement or any other changes in the policies concerning sexual harassment is likely to affect the effectiveness of proposed policies. It is recommended, for example that Propmore’s management include provisions detailing the conduct with non-employees.
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). (2006, March 29). Sexual Harassment. Retrieved August 18, 2006, from http://www.eeoc.gov/types/sexual_harassment.html
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). (1990, March 19). Policy Guidance on Current Issues of Sexual Harassment. Retrieved August 18, 2006, from http://www.eeoc.gov/policy/docs/currentissues.html
Equal Rights Advocates. (ERA). Sexual Harassment at Work. Retrieved August 18, 2006, from http://www.equalrights.org/publications/kyr/shwork.asp
Wyatt, Nancy. Legal Definitions of Sexual Harassment. Retrieved August 18, 2006, from http://www.de2.psu.edu/harassment/legal/
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