CHICAGO — Supervisors across America take note: How well you promote and enforce your company's sexual-harassment policy could soon impact whether you get that next raise or promotion.
This tough new standard of evaluating supervisors' rigor on harassment is something Ford Motor Co. agreed to as part of its $7.5 million sexual-harassment settlement with federal regulators in Chicago this week. And experts say it will soon become standard practice at most US firms.
The plan is the latest in a new wave of efforts by the courts and government agencies to ensure that harassment policies don't languish unread in employee handbooks - that they're in use everywhere from the corporate suite to the assembly-line floor. "The bottom line for companies is if your supervisors support the policy then it will work, but if not, chances are it won't," says Jon Zimring, who handles harassment law at the firm Duane, Morris & Heckscher in Chicago. And having a policy that doesn't work can cost employers big.
Ford had an antiharassment policy. But it will pay $7.5 million in damages, and spend about $10 million more on training, because 19 women at two Chicago-area plants complained to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), saying male workers routinely used sexually degrading names for them, put explicit materials in the workplace, and even groped some of the women. Furthermore, the EEOC said some managers threatened to fire the women who complained.
The settlement is the fourth-largest of its kind in US history - and comes just over a year after the biggest settlement, also in the auto industry. Last year, Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America agreed to pay $34 million in harassment claims at its Normal, Ill., plant. Before the complaints against Mitsubishi were filed, it had fired 15 employees on sexual-harassment grounds. But that was not enough. Investigators documented a pattern of harassment - and unwillingness to stop it among supervisors and managers.
"We're continuing to learn what works," says John Rowe, the EEOC's director in Chicago. "And even though senior management tends to be very supportive, the control arm is really the lowest level of management."
At Mitsubishi, there were "overwhelming numbers of situations in which first-line supervisors had been promoted from the ranks of the people they were now supervising," he says. "They were great friends with the harassers, and wouldn't confront them because they still wanted to be just 'one of the guys.' "
At Ford, and increasingly throughout corporate America, that won't be acceptable anymore. Salaried workers at all 23 US Ford plants - with a total of about 40,000 workers - won't even be considered for a promotion for two years if they've been disciplined for not supporting the policy against sexual and racial harassment, and three years if they've been suspended for it. "Within a couple years, this will become a standard operating practice" for US companies, says Michael Karpeles, head of the employment-law group at the Chicago firm of Goldberg, Kohn.
For one thing, he says, it's easy to add a box on supervisor evaluation forms covering sexual harassment - and it can save companies big money. That's because the Supreme Court has ruled that if a company actively seeks to rub out harassment, those efforts constitute an "affirmative defense," which can lessen the penalties in legal cases.
But the question is: How will supervisors be evaluated? Will it be simply their boss's impression? Or will their subordinates be polled? Will they have to be actively promoting the policy - or just not interfering with it?
The details are still to be worked out at Ford. But the few companies that have begun this practice have taken varied approaches. Some check whether supervisors attend all the required sexual-harassment seminars. Others survey employees about conduct. Some use outside consultants to interview workers and identify problems in policies.
In the end, says Mr. Zimring, managers will now have to "communicate to their employees that they agree with, personally believe in, and will enforce the harassment policy. Because as an employee, if your supervisor is making a big deal of this, then you're going to pay attention."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society