Developing an Expert System as Sexual Harassment Investigative Tool

By Robinson, Robert K.; Fink, Ross L. et al. | Human Resource Planning, September 1994 | Go to article overview

Developing an Expert System as Sexual Harassment Investigative Tool


Robinson, Robert K., Fink, Ross L., Lane, Peggy L., Human Resource Planning


Introduction

As a complaint actionable under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, sexual harassment is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was not even recognized by federal courts as a form of sex discrimination prior to 1976 (Williams v. Saxbe, 1976). Since that time, the frequency of sexual harassment complaints has steadily increased. According to Coleman (1993), over 56,000 complaints had been filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) by 1990. Wendt, Slonaker, and Coleman's (1993) recent study shows that sexual harassment complaints now comprise approximately one-fourth of all sex-based discrimination claims filed by women.

Three factors are very likely to exacerbate the future initiation of sexual harassment claims: increased media attention, the Civil Rights Act of 1991, and increased female participation in traditionally male-dominated work environments. Since the Senate confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas in October 1991, nationwide attention has been drawn to the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace.

This heightened awareness of sexual harassment and concern for basic female employee rights in the workplace has occurred simultaneously with the enactment of the most comprehensive employment rights legislation since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C. [sections] 2000e et seq.). The new statute, the Civil Rights Act of 1991 (Pub. L. No. 102-166), provides new guidelines governing the rights of workers, the most disturbing of which is the creation of a right of action for punitive and compensatory damages in instances in which the employer engaged in discriminatory practices with malice or reckless indifference to the federally protected rights (Civil Rights Act of 1991, [section] 102). If ignored, or improperly investigated, certain sexual harassment complaints could very well satisfy this criteria (Robinson, Franklin, and Fink, 1993). These compensatory or punitive damages can range from a maximum award of $50,000 to $300,000 per each complaining party depending on the size of the firm (42 U.S.C. [section] 1981(A)). Therefore, a substantial economic incentive is created for the employer to avoid such liability by taking reactive or proactive measures to ensure compliance with federal laws and regulations proscribing sexual harassment.

The third factor that is likely to affect the frequency of sexual harassment complaints in the workplace is the increased participation of women in the work force. Finney (1989) has estimated that women will account for 47% of the total work force by the year 2000. Numerous studies (Sheehan et al., 1990; York, 1989; Thomann and Weiner, 1987; Powell, 1986; Gutek, 1985; Gutek, Morasch, and Cohen, 1983; Reilly et al., 1982; Weber-Burdin and Rossi, 1982) have demonstrated that women are more likely to interpret certain workplace behaviors as sexual harassment than men. If women are going to represent a larger percentage of the work force, then it is reasonable to expect, ceteris paribus, that sexual harassment complaints will increase proportionately.

Regardless of which of these factors resulted in a complaint, any complaint has negative consequences for the organization. The potential for punitive and compensatory damages can result in direct costs to the organization. Additionally, the poor public relations that can be generated by sexual harassment allegations can be devastating to the image of some organizations and result in indirect costs to the firm.

There are positive sound business reasons for eliminating sexual harassment in the workplace in addition to litigation avoidance. Additionally, sexual harassment has been found to result in adverse job reactions through distraction and loss of motivation, hence lost productivity (Jensen and Gutek, 1982). Regardless, there are sufficient incentives, some may say disincentives, for employers to enforce sexual harassment policies.

The Development of the Expert System

Although there are more legal pitfalls than ever before for employers, liability in sexual harassment cases can be avoided, even after a formal complaint has been filed, provided that the employer promptly investigated the complaint and took appropriate remedial action (Baxter and Hermle, 1989). …

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