Creative Thinking and Sexual Harassment

By Greenlaw, Paul S.; Kohl, John P. | SAM Advanced Management Journal, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview
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Creative Thinking and Sexual Harassment


Greenlaw, Paul S., Kohl, John P., SAM Advanced Management Journal


Sexual harassment continues to be a major problem for women who work. Unfortunately, when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (CRA)[1] 30 years ago, it failed to define precisely what was meant by not discriminating based on race, religion, color, national origin - and sex. Beginning in the 1970s, women turned to the courts claiming that sexual harassment was a form of sex discrimination prohibited under Title VII of the CRA. At first plaintiffs were unsuccessful, but in the late 1970s and 1980s, courts began to make employers liable for harassers and harassing activities.[2]

Employers today are under increased pressure to deal with the problem of sexual harassment. Charges of harassment are time consuming and expensive. Even when organizations prevail in litigation, they must still bear the costs of defending themselves. Especially problematic is the issue of actions that create a "hostile work environment," which has been established as a form of sexual harassment but remains nebulous in terms of definition and meaning.

We believe that employers must come to grips with the issue of harassment in general and hostile work environment harassment in particular. One technique that can provide valuable assistance in this quest is "creative thinking training." Such training has been extremely useful in other areas of problem solving, and we believe it can be effective in dealing with this difficult problem.

This article will show how management can use concepts of creative thinking and techniques to train its employees in preventing and controlling harassment. First, we will provide a brief overview of sexual harassment, including the most widely accepted definition. Because of the continuing emphasis on litigation, we will focus on the legal issues surrounding harassing activities.

Second, we will present some basics about creative thinking and creativity training. These materials will form the linkage between harassment and the third section, where we will develop the relationship between creative thinking and sexual harassment. Here we will establish the potential for creative thinking to deal with and overcome problems of harassment in the workplace. Finally, we will look at the cost-benefit trade off of creativity training to curb harassing activities.

Sexual Harassment: An Overview

In recent years the nation's attention has been fixed on harassment charges in several high-profile situations: Anita Hill's testimony during the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings; the Navy's 1992 Tailhook convention in Las Vegas, Nevada; the 1994 investigation into Senator Packwood's treatment of women; the charges and suit filed against President Clinton for his alleged behaviors when Governor of Arkansas; and most recently, former U.S. Navy Lt. Paula Coughlin's civil suit against the Las Vegas Hilton for failure to provide proper security during the Tailhook convention in Las Vegas. In the latter case, Coughlin's attorneys successfully argued her case against the Hilton, and the jury awarded her $1.7 million in compensatory damages and $6.7 million (later reduced to $5.2 million) in a punitive judgment.[3]

All of these situations have a common thread - the target of sexual harassment continues to be women. One recent study found that more than 50% of women who work can expect to be sexually harassed sometime during their careers.[4] In 1993 approximately 8% of all cases filed before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and state human rights commissions involved charges of sexual harassment, with the vast majority of claims continuing to involve working women. Although sexual harassment can occur to both sexes, only 10% of sexual harassment complaints filed with the EEOC in 1994 were from men.[5]

This concern with sexual harassment is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was not viewed as a problem at the time of passage of Title VII of the CRA, under which workplace harassment is currently covered.

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