Sexual harassment: it's both illegal and bad business

MECHELLE Vinson has made her point: A woman has a right to be free from sexual harassment on the job. The nation's highest tribunal recently said she should not have to fear losing her job or suffer some other employment related deprivation as a consequence of resisting the amorous advances of a male supervisor.

When a woman is put in this situation, she can file suit and, if successful, collect damages from her harasser -- perhaps even from his employer.

Many working women have long been silent sufferers of this type of victimization. Some fear direct retaliation if they speak out. Others shun adverse publicity which might tarnish their reputations.

This situation began to change in recent years as feminist groups began urging active resistance to harassment. And state courts -- some applying worker compensation laws -- are now sporadically doling out cash awards to those who have been belittled in this way.

Until recently, Miss Vinson had only company policy and some civil anti-discrimination laws going for her. Now she has the full weight of federal civil rights law and the United States Supreme Court behind her.

The latter decided unanimously late last month that sexual harassment is plainly illegal. The justices invoked the Civil Rights Act of l964, which prohibits racial and sexual discrimination. And they stressed that sexual harassment of a female worker is a severe enough action to create ``a hostile or abusive work environment'' and is against the law even if such harassment is not linked to loss of employment benefits.

Vinson, a bank employee in Washington, said her job tenure and a potential promotion were dependent upon her willingness to succumb to the sexual advances of her supervisor, who was a branch manager and assistant vice president, and she did so under duress. When she tried to break off the relationship, she was threatened with dismissal. Then when she filed suit against both the supervisor and the bank, she was fired.

The high court indicated it really wasn't interested in probing bank charges that Miss Vinson may have acted as a spurned woman or that she dressed provocatively and otherwise welcomed -- or even encouraged -- her supervisor's attention. They will leave that to a lower court to assess in adjudicating the case.

Although the justices were united in their condemnation of sexual harassment, they were sharply divided on how broadly to place the blame.

Should companies be held legally and fiscally liable for the illegal actions of their employees in this area?

Not necessarily, said Associate Justice and soon-to-be Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. He was joined in this reasoning by a quartet of his colleagues, constituting a majority of the Court. Mr. Rehnquist stressed that an employer's liability is not automatic, especially if there is no prior knowledge of the harassment.

While women's groups and civil rights advocates tend to cheer the crux of this decision, they are less enthusiastic about the Court's reluctance to hold companies financially responsible that knowingly, or even innocently, allow harassment to go on in the workplace. Many believe that placing such a burden on employers would lead to more stringently enforced personnel policies to prevent this abuse against female workers.

On the other hand, business interests say they are relieved that the Justices stopped short of taking an absolute approach to who can be sued for sexual harassment.

``While sexual harassment by no means should be condoned, I think the Supreme Court realized the inherent unfairness of holding companies strictly liable for conduct they had no knowledge of and no opportunity to remedy,'' states Stephen A. Bokat, vice president of the industry-oriented National Chamber Litigation Center.

Naomi R. Cahn, a teaching fellow at Georgetown University Law School, says the Supreme Court ruling on sexual harassment, although limited, still leaves room for ``lower courts to hold employers liable.''

Miss Cahn adds that new cases are likely to address this matter specifically.

``But it's a major victory for women,'' she stresses. ``Sexual harassment now is recognized [for the first time by the Supreme Court] as a form of sex discrimination.''

Susan L. Webb, president of the Seattle-based Pacific Resource Development Group (PRDG) -- a private consulting firm specializing in advising industry on sexual harassment -- tends to agree.

Mrs. Webb would like to have seen the Court apply ``strict liability'' to employers. But she says the ruling in its present form should help curb abuses.

``Sexual harassment is relatively easy to prevent and stop,'' insists PRDG's head. She advocates three steps that business should take: (1)Get top management to think in terms of stamping out abuses; (2)institute personnel policies and grievance procedures that encourage victims of sexual harassment to speak out; (3)educate all employees -- not just women -- about the issue.

``This is more than a women's or a feminist issue. We need to approach sexual harassment as `bad business' which is against the law,'' Webb says. A Thursday column

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