Sex Harassment at Work Gets Weirder, Scarier: Susan Antilla

Not that I think it’s weird that a brokerage firm chief executive would pin a female clerk on the floor by putting his shoe on her breast (the right one, if you must know), or that some insurance company guy in Fullerton, California, would put a sample of his semen in a female colleague’s water bottle. Twice.

But it did get my attention when I started leafing through this year’s press releases from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and found a case where a supervisor allegedly said that women should outfit themselves in Vaseline, and nothing else; one where a manager in human resources (yes, in human resources) allegedly inquired as to the color of an assistant’s panties; and a case against a company president who the EEOC says pulled a subordinate’s pants down in front of her coworkers.

Smart boss, that pull-the-pants-down guy. He settled with the EEOC for $21,500 and a promise to train employees on sexual harassment law. I hope he’s in the room when training starts.

Breast-grabbing, bottom-pinching and other workplace humiliations have declined in the past decade, but that probably offers little comfort to the sewing machine operator who stood bottomless in front of coworkers in Crowell, Texas, after the boss removed her pants. A recent rash of weird harassment stories is a reminder that while fewer workers are going to the EEOC with harassment complaints (12,696 last year, down from 15,222 a decade ago), there is still a lot of abuse going on.

Strange Stunt

A contender for Weirdest Sex Harassment Stunt Ever came to pass with the Aug. 17 arrest of Michael K. Lallana, a 31-year- old former field director at Northwestern Mutual Financial Network in Orange County, California. In a press release, the Orange County District Attorney described the alleged crime as “two misdemeanor counts each of releasing an offensive material in a public place and assault” done for “sexual gratification.”

The “offensive material” turns out to have been Lallana’s semen, according to the D.A.’s statement. Lallana is accused of “entering the victim’s office and depositing his ejaculation into a water bottle that was on her desk” on Jan 14, 2010. She drank it, felt sick, and threw it away.

By April 9, he was allegedly doing it again. “Jane Doe,” as she is identified by the D.A.’s office, picked up a water bottle on her desk that day and took another swig of what turned out to be semen. This time, she sent it to a private lab to be tested. The lab said the bottle contained semen and Jane Doe reported it to the Orange Police Department. The DNA matched that of Lallana and a whole new way to gross out women in the workplace was born.

Dirty Dancing

A close second to Lallana’s stunt is the one alleged to have been done by Marcus Bolton, CEO of the New York operation of U.K. brokerage firm Tullett Prebon Plc. In a lawsuit filed in New York on Aug. 5, a female clerk describes Bolton grabbing her without warning in order to dance on the trading floor. When she struggled to free herself, the complaint says “he released her from his grip and she dropped to the floor on her back,” at which point the CEO “stepped directly and heavily” onto her right breast.

Bolton did not respond to e-mails or to a telephone message.

Male managers often grouse about those seminars where they are taught about the impropriety of things like putting your foot on someone’s breast. The sessions, though, are actually part of a package of steps that companies can take to avoid liability when managers screw up.

Burden on Victims

For the past decade, U.S. companies have benefited from changes in the law that put the onus on victims to use corporate grievance programs, or lose in court. Companies that train employees about harassment and set up systems to assist the harassed can get off scot free if victims don’t look for help from the company.

Harassment cases have declined as a result, New York employment lawyer Kathleen Peratis told me. “Not because companies give a damn about actually fixing the core problem, which is a power relationship issue,” she says, “but because they know the liability can be so great, and now the law gives them a fix.”

Considering some of the noteworthy cases of 2010, it looks to me like not all of that training is taking. “About five years ago, we noticed a trend of much more violence, assaults, rapes and oral copulation on a much more severe level,” Anna Parks, regional attorney at the EEOC’s Los Angeles district office, said.

Don’t let those declining complaint numbers fool you. Sex harassment is still big business, and retaliation figures are at record levels. The difference is that sex harassment has gotten weirder and scarier.

Susan Antilla is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Susan Antilla in New York at santilla@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net.

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