As the television lights shone down on Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill during their testimony at the Senate Judiciary committee hearings in mid-October, they lit up the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. Hour after hour, day after day, the testimony continued to reveal how serious this matter is and how emotional people become about it. It became strikingly clear to millions of Americans that it's an important business issue.
The hearings in Washington, D.C., served as a catalyst that ignited passionate discussion across the the country, even around the world. They served to show just how differently men and women experience certain key events. The televised exchange was the match that lit the fire, but the kindling was already there in homes and businesses around the nation. Women were angry. Many became distraught, recalling times they had been sexually harassed and hadn't come forward. Men were bewildered, then afraid: How could this happen? It mustn't be true. If it isn't true, then someday someone might falsely accuse them.
If one thing became clear from the hearings, it's that people have deep, vehement opinions about sexual harassment. As with other deeply emotional issues that become hyped by the media, there's intense discussion for a brief period of time, and soon the focus shifts to something else. But human resources administrators will be dealing with the aftermath of the Thomas-Hill proceedings long after current newsmagazines are in the recycling bin and long after radio talk shows go on to other agendas.
"The hearings have brought so much attention to this issue," says Patricia Pope, executive vice president of Cincinnati-based Pope & Associates Inc., personnel diversity consultants since the early 1970s. "I think that's positive. It's raised a lot of awareness."
There were a lot of people who didn't take the whole issue of sexual harassment seriously, but now do, according to Janet Andre of Catalyst, a national, nonprofit organization working with business to affect change for women.
"There are a lot of men who never would sexually harass a woman, who didn't understand that it could take place because they wouldn't do it and didn't observe it. Since it never would happen to them, it was something difficult to believe. These men have been educated by the process. They've become sensitized to it," says Andre, vice president of Catalyst's advisory services.
But that awareness is laced with confusion, anger and fear. Pope saw a group of white males discussing the issue. They were very angry. "I can't remember the last time a group of white males were so supportive of a black male," she says. "But they're angry over the issue. Some men are scared to death. They're very threatened by what they perceive to be this power that women have over them now. There's a notion that they'll be falsely accused."
Damon Woods, manager of training and development for Pope & Associates, agrees. Woods and his colleagues have trained approximately 250 people in the few weeks during and immediately after the hearings. He's found that people bring to the training workshops a lot of energy to discuss this matter.
"People are prepared to discuss sexual harassment," says Woods. "My experience previously has been that unless the organization had had specific sexual harassment training, people didn't understand the issue. Now they have energy to discuss it. It's opened up the lines of communication."
But Woods and Pope observe some men who are worried that including women in a variety of activities might leave them vulnerable to false accusations. "The last thing women need in any organization is to have men afraid of interacting with them for fear of sexual harassment charges," says Woods.
Nevertheless, he believes that some men who don't understand the issue may limit their interaction with women in informal settings--drinks after work, afternoons on the golf course. …