Americans Get Vivid Lesson On Harassment

Thomas hearings provide national forum on problem faced by many in the workplace

THE virtual explosion of outcries from women around the United States over Prof. Anita Hill's testimony alleging that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her indicates that, despite 10 years of federal guidelines prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace, it's alive and perniciously well.Last year the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received 5,694 sexual-harassment complaints. In one of many surveys taken by various groups during the last 10 days, the National Association of Female Executives found that 77 percent of women executives queried consider it a problem in the workplace. More than half reported that it had happened to them, but most said they never reported it. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll last week, 5 percent of the men polled said they had been sexually harassed. Guidelines issued in 1980 by the EEOC determined that conduct linking sexual favors to employment violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In 1986, the Supreme Court broadened that to conduct that created a "hostile environment." In the last decade businesses increasingly have tried to get a grip on the problem: defining acceptable office decorum, educating workers to understand those definitions, and creating an environment that enables women to come forward while still protecting men from unfounded accusations. Taking down calendars of bikini-clad women is the easy part. But what about the hand on the shoulder or the invitation to dinner? A common definition of harassment is any unwelcome, unwanted touching, jokes, or comments. "Sexual harassment is one of the few acts that can be seen very differently by the person who's been accused and the victim," says Janet Andre, vice president of advisory services for Catalyst, a New York-based group that works with businesses on women's issues. "It's the way the person sees the encounter which makes it harassment or not." Enter consultants, who help companies establish policies to make clear what is and what is not acceptable behavior. "More companies have developed these policies, whether through negotiations or lawsuits or good management," says Ellen Bravo, associate director of 9to5, the National Association of Working Women, which helps companies establish policies. The ultimate idea, she says, "is to build respect and harmony into the workplace." Susan Webb, president of Pacific Resource Development Group, a Seattle-based consulting firm that specializes in sexual-harassment cases, says a good policy includes top management support, a policy statement with procedures for getting and handling complaints, training for all employees, and "healing" the work group after an investigation so that no retaliation takes place. Catalyst also offers companies assistance with guidelines. Ms. Andre says, "It should be perceived that the policy has a clear line to top management, that no matter where it might happen in the organization, that it's going to be addressed." The sexual-harassment policy at the Du Pont Company grew out of its rape-prevention program. In closed sessions, women started talking about rape and ended up talking about the more-frequent occurrence of being sexually harassed. Company officials realized they needed a training program that not only complied with EEOC guidelines but that also focused on "meeting human needs and creating and fostering a respectful environment for everyone," says Faith Wohl, whose duties include responsibility for Du Pont 's sexual-harassment policy. "We try to continue an environment of respect for the person who may be charged with sexual harassment as well as [for] the person making the accusation," Ms. Wohl says. Many companies have found they can't afford not to have guidelines. A 1988 survey in Working Women's magazine of 160 Fortune 500 companies found that sexual harassment cost companies $6.7 million in low productivity, absenteeism, and employee turnover. Almost 90 percent of the companies surveyed had received at least one complaint of sexual harassment in the previous 12 months. Some companies have been driven to drawing up policies by lawsuits. While numbers are hard to pin down, this category has grown significantly since 1986, says Ellen Vargas, senior counsel for the National Women's Law Center. Ms. Webb says 60 to 70 percent of major companies have some form of sexual-harassment prevention. "Unfortunately, many women don't work at Fortune 500 companies," Ms. Bravo adds. "Many work at low-paying jobs with little protection from anything, including sexual harassment." "A lot of companies do a lot of things," says Ms. Vargas, but the outcry over the Thomas case "shows there remains a very serious problem. It's not an orchestrated political move - it's touched a nerve." Many women are afraid to come forward even when they know a legal remedy exists. "The Anita Hill case shows how even an educated professional can feel unable to speak out against sex harassment that she believes has taken place," says Anita Allen, a law professor at Georgetown University. But, she says, "I think things have gotten better since the '70s. More women are willing to blow the whistle, and the larger number of women in authority has improved the quality of life in the workplace."

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