A Pioneer Program Nurtures a Harassment Free Workplace

Article excerpt

In-your-face discussions about sexual harassment and gender differences, and facilitators who ensure that workplace equality isn't just talk have kept DuPont ahead of the curve.

It was back when the general response to sexual harassment in the workplace was merely gripes or giggles: the boss chasing the secretary around the desk type of scenario. It was years before the infamous Weeks v. Baker & McKenzie case would award a victim of sexual harassment $7.1 million, a monetary sting reminding companies of the punishment for complacency. It was also a few years before Anita Hill's testimony against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas would lead to a toothy new civil-rights law allowing punifive damages in sexual-harassment cases.

It was the late '80s when the HR department at Wilmington, Delaware-based E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company created a barrage of programs designed to ensure not only that women at the company were treated equitably, but that both men and women learned how to work together. The executives involved weren't setting out to rock the corporate world, they say; they were just setting out to improve the company. "I don't think we knew we were ahead of the game," says Bernard Scales, manager for workforce diversity. "I think we looked at what was right for DuPont, continuing to deliver on our value for people and our values as a company. This was a natural thing we did, and we didn't realize we were going to be on the cutting edge-that this was going to be something great, that it would have the impact it has today and ahead of other companies. But it has certainly worked out that way."

It has worked out well for DuPont, a company that had firm policies and programs in place guiding employees into the complicated '90s when other companies were just realizing they had problems.

Innuendoes, attacks and adjustments: Opening sexual harassment to discussion. A DuPont employee is having dinner with a customer. He proposes signing the final contract in his hotel room. Sexual harassment? A female employee is waiting for a male counterpart to instruct her on a lab procedure. Instead, he comments on how good she smells and jokes that his wife won't be wanting the two of them to go on a business trip. When she tries to change the subject, he comments on how smart and pretty she is.

Sexual harassment?

That's what groups of 20 to 25 employees watching the video vignettes have been deciding for almost a decade in DuPont's sexual-harassment education program, A Matter of Respect. The program began back in 1988 as an outgrowth of the company's rape-prevention personal safety program. "A lot of the women attending said, `This is good, important stuff, but what about my day-to-day work life? The exclusionary behaviors I feel? The inappropriate questions?"' remembers Bob Hamilton, DuPont's internal diversity consultant.

HR professionals decided the issue was an important one to address and, with few other corporate examples to go by, concluded the most important task was to get a conversation going-to acknowledge that there was a problem, to identify what is and isn't harassment and to start addressing the weak links.

Thus A Matter of Respect was born. Although the program isn't mandatory, it is, as Hamilton puts it, "Extremely highly recommended. It's as close to a mandatory program as we have." The company offers it on a regular basis, and business units can also request it as necessary.

It's structured to be as uninflammatory as possible. Participants are men and women in approximately equal numbers. In addition, the program is hosted by two facilitators, a man and a woman. "That's absolutely essential to this kind of work," says Hamilton. "If there's just a woman, then it's [like] someone waving a flag for a cause. If there's just a man, [women think] how are we going to have these guys who are doing the harassing telling us what's good and what's bad? …