Sexual Harassment

By Daniels, Mary | Risk Management, June 2000 | Go to article overview
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Sexual Harassment

Daniels, Mary, Risk Management

Over the past two decades, we have knocked down the walls of the most destructive and institutionalized forms of gender discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace. The national decrease in supervisor quid pro quo sexual harassment incidents testifies to the success of risk managers, human resource personnel and corporate policymakers to enact anti-harassment law. But just as surely as we have made great strides in one arena to increase employee awareness, we have fallen short attempting to eradicate the second form of sexual harassment--a hostile work environment.

Hostile environment sexual harassment problems have soared during the same time period we have have seen the quid pro quo sexual harassment decline. And they continue to present significant risk to the employer. According to a recent report, eleven cents on each employment practices insurance dollar is paid out on sexual harassment claims. And the bulk of these complaints involve coworker or hostile environment cases.

Traditional workforce training has done little to reduce hostile environment exposure. It focuses too much attention on just the do's and don'ts. Training cannot provide enough rules, though, to cover every possible situation. And the rise in reporting rates tells us that the identification of sexual harassment does little to stop it.

Risk and HR managers have been acutely aware that something more is needed to treat a hostile environment. We are now in the second generation of the struggle to end sexual harassment. We no longer have as many institutional barriers to break down. Instead, we are left to fight against entrenched employee attitudes that are rooted in the perceptions and subtle behavior patterns of men and women.

As we saw with the struggle to end race discrimination in the workplace, it was easier to tear down the biases that were tangible. It took decades longer to begin to effectively get at internalized employee judgements that give rise to racist reactions. Correspondingly, it is easier to fight against quid pro quo sexual harassment, based on tangible acts between supervisor and subordinate. A hostile environment, however, is based on what authors Wanda Dobrich and Steven Dranoff call "a perception of acts."

In their book, The First Line of Defense: A Guide to Protecting Yourself Against Sexual Harassment (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; $18.95), they tackle these distinctions and provide insights in a manner that any employee could understand. Their unique approach is based on their experience training staff in sexual harassment prevention at organizations across the United States, as well their research on psychological theory on the the perception of sexual harassment.

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