Americans Get Vivid Lesson on Harassment Thomas Hearings Provide National Forum on Problem Faced by Many in the Workplace

Article excerpt

THE virtual explosion of outcries from women around the United States over Prof. Anita Hill's testimony alleging that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her indicates that, despite 10 years of federal guidelines prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace, it's alive and perniciously well.

Last year the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received 5,694 sexual-harassment complaints.

In one of many surveys taken by various groups during the last 10 days, the National Association of Female Executives found that 77 percent of women executives queried consider it a problem in the workplace. More than half reported that it had happened to them, but most said they never reported it. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll last week, 5 percent of the men polled said they had been sexually harassed.

Guidelines issued in 1980 by the EEOC determined that conduct linking sexual favors to employment violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In 1986, the Supreme Court broadened that to conduct that created a "hostile environment."

In the last decade businesses increasingly have tried to get a grip on the problem: defining acceptable office decorum, educating workers to understand those definitions, and creating an environment that enables women to come forward while still protecting men from unfounded accusations. Taking down calendars of bikini-clad women is the easy part. But what about the hand on the shoulder or the invitation to dinner? A common definition of harassment is any unwelcome, unwanted touching, jokes, or comments.

"Sexual harassment is one of the few acts that can be seen very differently by the person who's been accused and the victim," says Janet Andre, vice president of advisory services for Catalyst, a New York-based group that works with businesses on women's issues. "It's the way the person sees the encounter which makes it harassment or not."

Enter consultants, who help companies establish policies to make clear what is and what is not acceptable behavior.

"More companies have developed these policies, whether through negotiations or lawsuits or good management," says Ellen Bravo, associate director of 9to5, the National Association of Working Women, which helps companies establish policies. The ultimate idea, she says, "is to build respect and harmony into the workplace."

Susan Webb, president of Pacific Resource Development Group, a Seattle-based consulting firm that specializes in sexual-harassment cases, says a good policy includes top management support, a policy statement with procedures for getting and handling complaints, training for all employees, and "healing" the work group after an investigation so that no retaliation takes place. …