Sexual Harassment: A Growing Workplace Dilemma

Article excerpt

THE LAW prohibiting sexual harassment is nothing new. Such behavior has been forbidden since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but it was not until 1991--when Anita Hill alleged harassment by a Supreme Court nominee--that public attention really focused on what constitutes sexually harassing behavior. As a result, awareness may be at an all-time high, but so is confusion about what this means in the workplace. Despite numerous well-meaning efforts by employers, sexual harassment litigation continues to skyrocket.

According to a 1994 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey, the human resource professionals who indicated that their departments handled one or more sexual harassment reports rose from 35.2% to 65.1% over the past three years. What makes such complaints even more significant is that many of these incidents are ending up in court. Businesses, with the biggest pocketbooks, are getting hit with the heaviest fines and penalties. In the end, such unnecessary costs put everyone at risk, including management, employees, and shareholders.

A study by the Center for Women in Government at the State University of New York at Albany found that the total monetary benefits awarded in sexual harassment cases handled by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission doubled from 1992 to 1993. Jurors awarded 1,546 employees $25,200,000 in monetary benefits from their employers to cover back pay, remedial relief, damages, promotions lost, and reinstatements. Growth has been steady since 1991, when public pressure was responsible for changes in the Civil Rights Act to allow for jury, compensatory, and punitive damages. Such cost estimates don't include out-of-court settlements or the time management and workers spend in court or the money spent on attorney and legal fees-often equal to or greater than award costs.

In an attempt to keep sexual harassment claims in check, nearly 97% of the respondents to SHRM's sexual harassment survey said their organizations have written policies defining and prohibiting sexual harassment and a procedure for handling such complaints. Nevertheless, perceptual problems still linger about what constitutes sexual harassment, making application of these policies difficult.

Even human resource professionals--the ones in charge of defining their corporate cultures--have differing opinions about the seriousness of this issue. Slightly more than 60% cited sexual harassment as a "real problem," compared to 30.5% who maintained that it is a "perceived problem." About 70% of women and 60% of men viewed it as a real problem.

Not everyone is convinced that the issue is serious or is sure how best to deal with the challenge. According to one survey respondent, "Sexual harassment is so much a part of some organizations and we are so conditioned to accept it that the real impact on organizations is still not apparent."

Obviously, there continues to be a need for education and training in workplaces about sexual harassment. An even tougher battle lies ahead to change the culture or the mind-set of organizations and society at large.

Defining the issue

"That dress/shirt looks really nice on you," one employee says to another. If uttered in the wrong way, to the wrong person, at the wrong time, such a simple statement can lead to a flood of sexual harassment complaints and potential legal battles for the employees and employers involved.

The legal prohibition against sexual harassment derives from Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination on the basis of sex. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, such harassment consists of unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical acts of a sexual or sex-based nature where submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of employment or an employment decision. In these cases, certain behavior is expected in exchange for a monetary gain or career advancement. …