Firms Must Avoid Confusion in Sexual Harassment Policy

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The work place has seen rapid growth in the number of sexual harassment lawsuits, and the courts are displaying some confusion over the difficult nature of the problem.

The number of complaints filed with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission reached 5,572 last year. That was up 37.7 percent from 4,406 in 1986, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Meritor vs. Vinson that the federal employment law prohibiting sexual discrimination covers sexual harassment that is "sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment."

Lawsuits filed by the commission with sexual harassment allegations were up to 50 last year from 38 in 1986.

Since Meritor vs. Vinson, lower federal courts have come up with varying results. A Florida judge upheld the claim of a female shipyard worker about nude and pornographic pictures and sexually demeaning remarks. In Cincinnati, however, the federal appeals court ruled there was not a hostile environment in a work place with posters of naked women.

In California, a judge dismissed a claim by a woman against a man and fellow worker who showered her with unwelcome invitations and then started writing her love letters. An appeals court, however, reversed the ruling and said sexual harassment must be viewed from the prospective of a "reasonable woman," not a "reasonable man."

Judges are increasingly called on to make distinctions between uninvited-but-not welcome and offensive-but-tolerated offenses, said Alison Wetherford of the National Organization for Women Legal Defense and Education Fund. Some courts look at cases from the woman's perspective, and others don't, she said. Victor Schachter, a San Francisco lawyer who represents employers, expects the courts to be increasingly sensitive toward how a "reasonable woman" perceives such conduct.

To avoid confusion, a sexual harassment policy should provide for ways to register complaints, encourage reports without reprisal, and initiate investigations. The investigations should be conducted quickly and include interviews of employees involved and witnesses. Follow up interviews are needed to ensure that harassment has stopped and that there have been no reprisals.

With strong policies, companies can resolve problems themselves, avoid lawsuits and, most important of all - preserve the dignity of all employees. …

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