Challenging Harassment

In the six years since the televised Clarence Thomas hearings stimulated a national debate on sexual harassment in the workplace, there has been clear progress. But not enough. Cases of women being harassed, or denied career advancement for protesting harassment, continue to reach the courts and the news.

As Ann Scott Tyson details in her major survey starting on Page 1 today, thousands of businesses and universities around the country have adopted codes of behavior to warn, prescribe, and, hopefully, prevent actions that embarrass, demean, or threaten an employee in a sexually predatory way. Perhaps 97 percent of US firms now have some kind of sexual-harassment policy in place.

But those codes are not always observed or regularly enforced. Human beings occupy the slots on organizational charts. And humans sometimes flout the rules. But the education of employees is increasing - and for good reason.

A business, government office, or university that fails to change offensive behavior runs two risks: (1) damage to its reputation and to the reputations of many innocent people in its employ; (2) a potential distortion of its career-promotion and transfer process if it becomes hypercautious in the wake of actionable behavior.

Given these factors, it is safe to assume that several recent sexual-harassment cases in the news have prompted reactions ranging from spin control to executive soul-searching. Spin control usually makes matters worse, as the high-visibility saga of former Sen. Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon showed. Among cases recently making headlines:

*The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) April 9 filed a sexual-harassment suit on behalf of up to 500 female workers at Mitsubishi Motor Corp.'s United States manufacturing unit. The suit includes accusations of various types of sexual misconduct at the automaking plant in Normal, Ill.

*The EEOC this month may have begun an investigation into sexual harassment allegations at Astra USA Inc., a Massachusetts-based pharmaceutical company. (The EEOC has not officially confirmed the investigation.) Astra USA's chief executive was suspended by its Swedish parent company's board of directors in April in part because of harassment allegations. During his 15-year term, 16 legal or internal complaints of harassment were brought by female employees. Two other top executives at Astra also were suspended.

*Last week, one current and two former female employees of Smith Barney Inc., a brokerage firm, filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court charging the company with discrimination against women in hiring, training, promotion, and pay. The lawsuit alleges that the company's Garden City, N.Y., branch fosters an environment where sexual harassment is tolerated and where those assigned to handle discrimination complaints routinely defend the harassers.

One of the lessons of the Packwood hearing was that a woman who comes forward with charges of harassment is often herself accused of fabrication or instability in an effort to undermine her credibility. That, unfortunately, still seems to be the case. After the Mitsubishi allegations became public, at least one woman employee says she found threatening messages scrawled on her locker.

And yet these cases, like those that preceded them, came to light precisely because women employees were willing to challenge men who, in most cases, held more-powerful positions than they. (In the Astra and Smith Barney lawsuits, the plaintiffs allege that top-level management was responsible for creating or promoting the offensive behavior.)

Though it shouldn't take a lawsuit for a company to treat an employee's harassment complaint seriously, the publicity surrounding these cases likely will prompt firms that have not yet taken decisive action to develop and enforce codes of workplace behavior to do so.

Much progress has been made in broadening the categories of jobs where women are accepted as naturally as men. In the process of banishing fear of sexual harassment, no one wants to create a general atmosphere of suspicion. What's needed is simply respect for women's talents. Quality is what counts in any job. Women deserve work conditions that encourage development of innate abilities.

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