CHICAGO — In a dusty trailer on a Chicago construction site, two-dozen hard-hats sit at a sexual harassment workshop debating whether it is OK to call women workers "babe," flirt on the job, or whistle at co-workers in tight jeans.
Hundreds of miles away at E.I. Du Pont de Nemours and Company's corporate headquarters in Wilmington, Del., white-collar workers discuss what a saleswoman should do if a male customer asks her to his hotel room to finalize a major deal.
At Pratt-Whitney aircraft engine factory in East Hartford, Conn., posters on the cafeteria walls read: "Sexual harassment. It's a touchy subject."
As sexual harassment emerges as one of the most sensitive workplace issues of the 1990s, a growing number of companies are quietly working to check the problem before it gets beyond the office suite or factory floor.
Dozens of firms are holding training seminars, giving quizzes to employees about harassment policies, and appointing special in-house representatives to field worker complaints.
While corporate America still has a long way to go in curbing the problem, several factors are forcing companies to take the issue more seriously:
*Mounting numbers of cases and legal costs. Sexual harassment charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have shot up 165 percent since 1990, with 90 percent brought by women. Stiffer laws and government regulations penalize companies that are slack on the problem. High-profile cases, such as the federal suit the EEOC filed last month against a Mitsubishi auto plant in Normal, Ill., show that negligence can cost companies millions of dollars in legal expenses.
*Poor performance. Companies lose hundreds of millions of dollars each year from turnover, absenteeism, and low productivity related to sexual harassment. The typical Fortune 500 firm loses $6.7 million each year due to such problems, according to a 1988 survey by Boston consulting firm Klein Associates.
*Trouble recruiting women. Companies tainted by harassment fail to recruit the most qualified women, a serious drawback as the percentage of women in the US labor pool expands.
"In this day and age you can't ignore the problem and assume that's just how men are," says Mark Dickens of United Parcel Service (UPS) in Atlanta. "That's no longer acceptable."
Clearly the problem of sexual harassment, which the EEOC defines as "unwelcome" sexual attention in the workplace, is enormous. From 40 to 60 percent of women in the United States have experienced sexual harassment on the job, polls show. According to a 1992 Working Woman magazine survey of 9,000 readers, 62 percent said they had been sexually harassed.
"It's a serious and pervasive problem in virtually every industry," says Susan Webb, president of Seattle-based Pacific Resources Development Group, who advises firms on sexual harassment.
Moreover, even though most US firms now have anti-sexual harassment policies on the books - 97 percent according to a 1994 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va. - many still lack the follow-through needed to minimize problems.
"Not many companies are doing a good job," says Ms. Webb.
The problem is worst in male-dominated industries where women are either underrepresented or breaking in for the first time, experts say. These range from computer software and engineering to heavy manufacturing and construction. Harassment tends to be more physical and overt in blue-collar workplaces.
For example, a survey of 182 Chicago-area tradeswomen in 1992 found that 83 percent had experienced unwelcome sexual remarks and 57 percent had been inappropriately touched or propositioned. The survey was conducted by Chicago Women in Trades, which promotes women in "nontraditional" occupations.
At a recent workshop given by the group on Chicago's West Side, 13 mostly middle-aged tradeswomen listen as instructor Shelley Davis defines sexual harassment. "How many of you have experienced this?" asks a co-instructor.
Eight hands go up. Two women say they faced "quid pro quo" harassment, where superiors demanded sexual favors in return for jobs or benefits.
Maria Rosales, a Chicago construction worker, was on her first job as a sprinkler fitter on a 40-story building when a male co-worker urinated in front of her and tried to grab her. "I was scared. The scaffolding was very open and we worked in secluded areas," says Ms. Rosales. She reported the problem, which occurred in 1989, and the man was eventually transferred.
As companies begin to recognize that sexual harassment is bad for business, more are increasingly willing to invest in prevention programs, which are relatively inexpensive. A comprehensive training program for a Fortune 500 company with about 24,000 employees costs on average $200,000, according to Klein Associates.
A few companies have a reputation for aggressively combating harassment. These include United Technologies Corp., UPS, and Du Pont, which have predominantly blue-collar work forces, as well as white-collar firms such as Avon Products Inc. and Apple Computer Inc.
Several factors help these firms succeed, experts say. Most important, they have leaders committed to a well-defined "zero tolerance" policy. They train employees, remind them of the rules, and hold managers accountable in performance reviews. They encourage workers to report problems through a variety of confidential channels and promptly investigate complaints. Many transfer or fire violators, and some even halt business with customers who harass their employees.
Still, even firms with good track records face obstacles. One of the biggest, and most basic, is educating workers about what constitutes sexual harassment. Men often have difficulty defining harassment, experts say, because it depends partly on how the victim, usually a woman, perceives it.
"A guy might honestly believe there is nothing wrong with commenting about a woman's dress, but she might see that as threatening," says Ronald Shane, a manager for Avon in New York.
Ms. Davis, who leads sexual-harassment workshops for Chicago-area construction workers, says many men are uncertain where to draw the line. "They give me an example and ask, 'Is this a lawsuit?' They get very frustrated when I say, 'It depends,' " Davis explains.
Companies can use several methods to sensitize men to a woman's viewpoint. At Du Pont, women are asked to describe offensive incidents to male colleagues in small group training sessions. A trainer might also ask a man how he would feel if his wife or daughter had a similar experience or if a newspaper reported such an act.
"A lot of [the problem] is getting the men to see how they would respond in an analogous situation," says Bob Hamilton, a consultant at Du Pont, where the percentage of women in manufacturing jobs has grown to 20 percent in recent years.
One factor, however, that firms need to guard against is male backlash. Men anxious about possible harassment charges sometimes react defensively. They grow reluctant to hire, promote, and mentor women, or even to travel with them or invite them to lunch. "This is becoming another reason not to give women opportunities," says Mary Mattis, vice president of Catalyst, a New York advocacy group on women's issues.
For example, Great Lakes Plumbing and Heating Company, a Chicago-area construction contractor with 250 tradesmen and 10 tradeswomen, actively discourages harassment through posted policies and workshops.
Still, foreman Tim Bogan says older workers resent having women on the job and stereotype them. Other men complain about women's locked toilets and special trailers, and call their demands for equality hypocritical. "Some guys are mad," says Mr. Bogan. "These things rub them the wrong way."
When sexual harassment complaints arise, many men clam up, admits Great Lakes Executive Vice President Kevin Condon. "They won't even talk about it. They are afraid of being wrongfully accused," he says.
Women who complain are viewed suspiciously as troublemakers or gold diggers, and some men threaten to quit rather than work with them, Mr. Bogan contends. To avoid such labels, many women end up tolerating sexual harassment. For Linia Chrusfield, an apprentice plumber at Great Lakes Plumbing, that means "being one of the boys."
Pushing back her hard hat, Ms. Chrusfield says she rebuffs the relentless sexual jibes with humor and goes to the men's parties, despite the female strippers. "I adapt to what's going on," she says.
One way firms can avoid backlash is to address workers' worries up front. Experts say this means reinforcing training. Hour-long or even half-day training sessions aren't enough if the learning stops there. To reiterate their policies, some companies use posters, spot tests, and memos when a major case breaks in the news. These steps are aimed at fostering an open dialogue among employees.
United Technologies, with 73,000 US workers, has mounted a series of blunt, double-entendre posters in lobbies, cafeterias, and outside restrooms. "What's the line between flirtation and harassment? - The unemployment line," warns one. "You bring out my animal instincts. This isn't a zoo," reads another.
"Some workers will say these are hokey. Some will laugh. But all of them will go back to their shops or offices and talk about them, and that's what we want," says Charles Mathews, who designed the sexual harassment policy for United Technologies in Hartford, Conn.
One difficulty for companies is that most women are still not comfortable reporting sexual harassment, surveys show.
Although women usually win if their case goes to trial, they still also frequently lose their jobs, are blacklisted, or feel compelled to quit. In contrast, half of the women polled by Working Woman said nothing happened to their alleged harasser. "Women have to weigh very carefully the odds that they'll succeed if they complain," says Ms. Mattis of Catalyst.
Companies encourage complaints by specifying people to whom workers can report harassment, from personnel managers and ombudsmen up to chief executives. Others set up confidential phone lines; Du Pont has a 24-hour hotline and United Technologies has an 800-number.