Magazine article USA TODAY

Economic Impact of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Magazine article USA TODAY

Economic Impact of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Article excerpt

THREE YEARS have passed since Americans sat riveted near television sets and radios, listening to the Senate hearings investigating Anita Hill's allegations of sexual harassment against Supreme Court Justice-designate Clarence Thomas. It was a spectacle that vividly defined the problem of sexual harassment--and created a new source of national angst.

The intense post-hearings debate gave rise to a political wave that reached Congress. In 1992, 117 women ran for seats in the House and Senate, breaking the previous record of 77 in 1990. While economic issues dominated, sexual harassment was the subtext in many races.

What about the workaday world? Did the sensational Hill-Thomas hearings serve as a cautionary tale about sexual harassment in the workplace? For many companies, yes; but for many others, the answer is no. It is estimated that 50-85% of American females will experience some form of sexual harassment during their academic or working lives. Yet, just 25% ever tell anyone, and only five percent ever file charges.

The damage it can cause to women's professional careers is well-documented. Not as well quantified, but no less damaging, is the loss of confidence and self-esteem. Clearly, sexual harassment in the workplace continues to be a degrading and career-limiting experience for many women--from neurosurgeons to secretaries and lawyers to construction workers.

While it primarily is a problem for women, men are affected as well. In May, 1992, for instance, a Los Angeles court ordered a manufacturer to pay a man $1,000,000 in damages for sexual harassment by his female supervisor, an officer of the company.

On the broad spectrum of sexual discrimination, sexual harassment is one of the more extreme, more flagrant manifestations. Unlike some forms of sexual discrimination that result unintentionally from neutral policies or practices, such harassment arises out of deeply ingrained attitudes about sexual identities and sexual roles. These attitudes must change.

It is unlikely that sexual harassment can be eradicated in a single generation. Nevertheless, enormous progress can be made if it is viewed as an economic issue.

As the U.S. evolves from an industrial/ manufacturing economy toward an information/services one, human resources people--are becoming the true engine of added value. Skilled, experienced, and committed employees frequently provide a company its competitive edge. Most firms today subscribe to the idea that it makes eminent sense to invest in human capital resources to enhance productivity.

Yet, many companies do not understand the productivity aspect of sexual harassment. While it is well-known that harassment essentially is an abuse of power, few people appreciate the adverse effect it has on employee productivity. Corporations are beginning to realize that investment to minimize sexual harassment in the workplace can yield startling economic returns.

Women constitute 46% of the workforce and their productivity is critical to the nation's economic health. It is imperative that U.S. companies grasp an important fact: Great economic benefits can be derived from establishing and maintaining a harassment-free workplace.

To date, there is only limited research that quantifies the dollar costs of sexual harassment. The data that does exist is compelling, however. In the typical Fortune 500 company with 23,750 employees, sexual harassment costs $6,700,000 per year in absenteeism, low productivity, and employee tumover. This represents $282.53 per employee, according to a 1988 survey conducted by Working Woman. (The first scientific sampling of its kind in the private sector, this 49-question survey was answered by directors of personnel, human resources, and equal-opportunity offices representing 3,300,000 employees at 160 corporations.

This did not include the indirect, hard-to-measure expenses of legal defense, time lost, and tarnished public image. …

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