A New Page in the Employee Handbook?

Article excerpt

Now that the high court has ruled same-sex sexual harassment is illegal, businesses must figure out hot to deal with it

In the beginning there were Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and that now-infamous can of Coke. Now there are Joseph Oncale, a bar of soap, and a Louisiana oil rig full of men.

Increasingly, men harassing women is not tolerated in this country, and now the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it's not OK among people of the same sex either. [See excerpt on page 55.] Although most major companies put policies in place long ago to keep the proverbial office stud from pinching his secretary's behind, corporate America now must finally address an issue it has so far managed to avoid.

"This could be to same-sex harassment what Anita Hill was to males and females," says Scott Seitz, partner in Spare Parts Inc., a marketing and communications company based in Westport, Conn., that specializes in the gay and lesbian market. After the Hill case in 1991, corporations updated their harassment policies and added employee training programs. However, Seitz says, most did not include same-sex sexual harassment. Some willfully excluded it; others simply did not think of it. But whatever the reason, those companies will now be "caught in a whirlwind."

Susan Gore, owner of the Dallas-based Mentor Group, which consults with corporations on human resource issues, characterizes corporate America's attitude toward same-sex sexual harassment as "a paradox: clueless and concerned." Big business, Gore says, is "more ignorant than malicious."

That ignorance stems from several sources. Federal law prohibits sexual harassment, but 40 states do not bar discrimination against gays and lesbians. As a result most employees avoid claiming to be sexually harassed for fear of losing their jobs.

In addition, says Mary Froning, a Washington, D.C., psychologist specializing in sexual victimization, many Americans minimize same-sex sexual harassment. "In our society men are not seen as victims, so same-sex sexual harassment [among men] is seldom reported--and if it is, it's brushed off as not a big deal. `Real men' are supposed to punch out their harassers." Of course, that's impossible in the workplace. So men who are harassed by other men suffer in silence until they get frustrated and quit or their performance drops and they are fired.

Same-sex sexual harassment does not always involve one gay and one straight man. Oncale, the heterosexual plaintiff in the Supreme Court case, alleged he was harassed sexually by straight managers and colleagues on an offshore oil rig. He sued his employer, Sundowner Offshore Services, because he said senior managers did not respond to his complaints.

"Most people think same-sex sexual harassment is about gay guys hitting on straight guys, but in my experience gay guys are more often the victims, often of other gay men," says Washington, D.C., civil rights attorney Mickey Wheatley. For example, "there's a big difference between two guys bantering in a bar or restaurant and doing the same thing in the workplace. We're so used to thinking that's how gay men act, we think, There must be something wrong with me if we're bothered by it."

Still, such harassment is rare, adds Seitz, because most gays in corporate environments are still closeted. Fearful of being discriminated against, they neither harass others nor act in ways that would make people think they are gay and bring harassment upon themselves.

Female-female harassment also exists, Gore says, but is an even more unexamined, seldom-discussed area. Such harassment usually involves stalking and constant telephoning. As with men, says Gore, this may be called sexual harassment but is usually about power, not sex.

Whatever its dynamic, Seitz says, sexual harassment is like many other workplace issues that "move to the front burner" whenever a major case receives national exposure, such as the Clarence Thomas confirmation battle, the Tailhook scandal, or the Texaco racism tapes. …