Tougher Responses Defuse Explosive Trend in Harassment

Reports of sexual harassment at American corporations - one of the decade's most explosive workplace issues - are apparently topping out.

A four-year surge in cases began in 1991, according to federal data. But recent numbers, along with a Chicago company's decisive handling of a recent, high-profile case, suggest that deterrents to sexual harassment are catching hold.

"Particularly among larger companies, there are some encouraging signs," says Mary Rose Strubbe of the Institute for Law and the Workplace at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

This week's story of a Chicago company affirms that much of corporate America now demands quick, systematic investigation and, if necessary, hard reprisal for sexual harassment, experts say.

CNA Financial Corp. disclosed on Tuesday that the president of its life insurance company and his deputy had resigned because of "offensive comments" by the president to two female employees and attempts by the deputy "to prevent ... efforts to remedy the situation."

Only about two weeks passed from the time top executives learned of the allegations until an internal investigation ran its course and culminated in the March 1 resignations, says CNA spokesman Roger Morris.

The CNA case is remarkable, ironically, because it is not extraordinary. The big insurer's workplace has been neither eminent nor lax, just ordinary, experts say.

Stepped up efforts to prevent sexual abuse at big corporations "are an important change," says Anne Ladky, executive director of Women Employed, a nonprofit equal-opportunity advocacy group in Chicago. "We hope it represents a long-term trend."

"Companies with a more developed human-resource office are much more attuned to their potential liability and to the potential public relations damage and have instituted policies that, once on the books, they are obligated to enforce," she says.

Public awareness and charges of sexual harassment rose dramatically after Anita Hill alleged such abuse by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991. The highly charged controversy, played out in minute detail on national TV, made sexual harassment a talking point from assembly lines to boardrooms. From fiscal year 1991 until fiscal year 1995, formal charges of such wrongdoing rose 50 percent, according to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Last fiscal year, though, the number of charges filed at the commission fell by 9 percent.

Experts caution that the drop could be a brief pause in a steep upward line begun in 1991. Also, sterner handling of sexual harassment cases might trigger a backlash, cloaked in the principles of due process or free speech.

Moreover, experts say frequent sexual harassment persists in small companies that, unlike many well-endowed corporations, devote neither money nor staff to combating such abuse.

"The majority of women who call us about sexual harassment don't work in large corporations; they tend to work in smaller companies," says Ms. Ladky.

And many cases are not reported at all.

What to Do About Sexual Harassment

Women Employed, a nonprofit advocacy group in Chicago, offers the following recommendations for dealing with sexual harassment:

If You Are Harassed

* Deal with the harassment directly when it occurs. Say "I'm not interested" or "I prefer that you not touch me when we talk." Say it firmly, without smiling or apologizing, making clear the behavior is inappropriate.

* If it persists, state in writing that you object to this behavior. Report only the facts; state how the harassment makes you feel; state your desired response.

* Keep a diary of incidents: a bound book to which paper cannot be added, with dates, times, places, direct quotes.

* Ask coworkers if they have witnessed incidents or been harassed.

* Use formal complaint procedures. Report the harassment to the designated human-resource representative, your supervisor, or, if your supervisor is the harasser, their supervisor.

If You Are an Employer

* Adopt and enforce clear policies and procedures. The goal is prevention. If harassment does occur, encourage employees to report it. Ensure fair treatment for the complainant and the accused, and ensure prompt resolution.

* Educate employees about company policy. Policy should clearly state that sexual harassment is illegal and will not be tolerated.

* Provide the name and title of the person(s) to whom harassment complaints should be sent.

* Outline in writing the procedure for investigating complaints, with a time frame for action and disciplinary policies.

* Assure confidentiality.

* State that retaliation against those who participate in resolving a complaint is prohibited. Provide for disciplinary action against those who retaliate.

* Train all employees.

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