Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Media Companies Not Immune from Sexual Harassment Charges

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Media Companies Not Immune from Sexual Harassment Charges

Article excerpt

Media companies not immune from sexual harassment charges

Clarence Thomas' recent confirmation hearings raised the nation's awareness of sexual harrassment in the workplace far beyond what could have been imagined.

The public was riveted to television sets late into the night, watching every minute of the Senate hearings.

There, broadcast live to the nation, were graphic statements that would have rated a criminal obscenity if they had been sung by a rock group in Florida.

It seemed that every newspaper and magazine in the country was raising questions about the confirmation process and the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. Most of the media concluded that what people saw was bad government, not good theater.

It was only natural that, on "the morning after," the media would awaken to find their own houses not in order. At media enterprises across the country, charges of sexual harassment have begun to surface. Too few media companies have adopted carefully thought-out, up-to-date sexual harassment policies. Fewer still have actually conducted training to teach personnel how to implement proper procedures. What are the lessons here?

Above all, sexual harassment is no joke. Like any business, media companies must realize that "hands-on management" means running companies on a cost-effective, proactive basis. The law prohibits sexual harassment, whether in the newsroom or production facilities. Failing to manage sexual harassment claims proactively can lead to big penalties. In fact, civil rights law has just been amended to permit recovery of compensatory and punitive damages, raising the specter of multimillion-dollar judgments.

Sexual harassment is an irresistible topic for the media to cover. Yet media companies must move quickly to insure that they do not become the story instead of the storyteller. Each media enterprise should have a thorough, written policy that addresses all aspects of the issue. The policy must not only cover what the rules are, but how they will be administered. Along with the policy, managers should be trained to prevent, recognize, and investigate sexual harassment.

The Thomas hearings provide good insight into many aspects of sexual harassment policies. As the hearings demonstrated, there are two sides to every story. Therefore, a good policy must protect both those who have been harassed and those who have been falsely accused.

The policy should be part of a broader commitment to encouraging a productive, supportive workplace environment. It should be written in plain language so that employees can easily understand the policy and think about its meaning. A media company's sexual harassment policy must also be publicized internally, with its message regularly reinforced through training and effective communications materials. This is vital; if employees are not aware of all the policy's aspects, its most important preventive effect will be lost.

Media companies are often considered artistic organizations whose writers need great freedom and independence, an ambiance that tends to spill over to all parts of the enterprise. Unfortunately, it may compromise the discipline that is required to implement a successful sexual harassment policy. Artistic ambiance aside, a policy must mandate that victims and/or witnesses promptly report violations, that employees tell the truth and cooperate in investigations, and that failure to observe these basic rules of common decency may result in dismissal. …

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