Sexual Harassment: Out Of The Shadows

At Kraft General Foods Inc., the halls are buzzing about Anita F. Hill, Clarence Thomas, and whatever went on between them. "Everybody's talking about this. All levels, men, women, everybody," says Stephanie Kovner, a Kraft associate promotion manager. At American Telephone & Telegraph Co., Chairman Robert E. Allen distributed an electronic memo assuring employees that AT&T takes sexual harassment seriously. Included was a statement of the company's policy. And at Unisys Corp., Chief Economist Everett M. Ehrlich says Hill's claims of sexual harassment by Thomas "struck a chord" with women in his office. As a result, Ehrlich says, "everyone -- and that probably includes me--has had a moment when they've searched their own souls."

Yes, everyone, especially human relations specialists, has an opinion about Hill vs. Thomas (page 33 23 ). And in Washington, the political reverberations will echo long after Thomas' 52-48 confirmation to the court on Oct. 15 (page 34 24 ). But the riveting testimony over sexual harassment will probably leave the most indelible mark on companies. "Irrevocably, this is a workplace issue. No one is now going to say that sexual harassment is an interpersonal problem--that companies shouldn't be involved," says Freada Klein, a Cambridge (Mass.) consultant on sexual harassment.

MORE SUBTLE. A revolution in the law on sexual harassment underlies all the hubbub over Thomas and Hill. It was as recently as 1980 that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission first identified two types of sexual harassment. Companies easily understand the obvious kind: Sleep with me, honey, or you're fired. But they often don't quite get the murkier, second form: hostile-environment harassment. Here, as in the Thomas affair, questionable behavior may be subtle and cumulative, ranging from lewd jokes to nude calendars or even obsessive staring. Now, courts are ruling that the conduct has to be judged, not by the old "reasonable man" rule, but from the eyes of a "reasonable woman." And they're stretching the definition of a hostile environment so fast that many employers can't keep up.

The focus on sexual harassment has reaffirmed changes already made at such companies as Du Pont and Corning (page 32 22 ). Prompted by sweeping court rulings and the need to cut attrition among women, these companies lately have made combating sexual harassment a top priority. Now, such pacesetters are using the news to drive home their messages. Digital Equipment Corp., for one, has already had a couple of requests from managers looking to refresh employees on its policies, says Ronald C. Glover, corporate personnel policy manager. He adds that one manager said: " 'Gee, it's been a while since I've given managers training.' " At DEC, these training programs cover cases drawn from actual incidents. Managers "want to take this as an opportunity to reinforce the message," says Glover.

Smaller corporations and even law firms are running to sexual harassment consultants seeking advice on how to set up grievance procedures or expand training sessions. One caller reached consultant Klein on Sunday afternoon, right in the middle of the hearings, and kept her on the line for an hour. And managers at Houston-based Conoco Inc. are taking the issue seriously. "I certainly had my awareness heightened to make sure that the environment is conducive to my employees' enjoyment and advancement," says John W. Sauer, Conoco's chief energy analyst. "The hearings will improve how companies follow up sexual harassment charges."

PERVASIVE. Some of the frenzy stems from the recognition, made clear by the ugliness of the televised hearings, that such a private issue doesn't belong in public forums, including courtrooms. "Both sides lose," Klein says, citing tarred reputations, sinking morale, and other fallout. Instead, companies should focus on prevention and handle complaints quickly, quietly, and without retribution (table).

Employers are also waking up to the fact that sexual harassment not only exists, but is pervasive. Whether you believe Anita Hill or not, several other women testified before the Senate that they or colleagues had been harassed. Moreover, more extensive surveys back such accounts. In a new poll, the National Association for Female Executives found that 53% of the 1,300 members surveyed were sexually harassed or knew someone who was.

As personnel department staffers fret over curbing sexual harassment, employees are also struggling. Lurking behind their spirited lunchroom debates is mass confusion over how to conduct themselves. More and more, this bewilderment is revealing itself in "funny ways," says a New Jersey-based AT&T manager, Michele K. Masterfano. She recounts how a female colleague put her hand lightly on a man's shoulder. Suddenly, another woman rushed up and said: "Oh no, don't do that." And a female systems analyst at a large Hartford insurer says: "In my office now if we women say something that could be misconstrued as sexist, the guys pop up and say, 'That's sexual harassment.' "

Will Hill's courage embolden others to speak out? At Gannett Co., women have already stepped forward as victims of sexual harassment, says Senior Vice-President for Personnel Madelyn P. Jennings. In the week ended Oct. 14, 9to5, National Association of Working Women, logged nearly 1,200 calls to its hotline -- about triple the usual volume.

'BACKLASH.' But others remember the "character assassination" of Hill, a tenured law professor at the University of Oklahoma. "If Anita Hill can't win it, who can?" asks Peggy Garrity, a Los Angeles lawyer who handles sexual harassment cases. She adds that the hounding of Hill over why she didn't leave when the alleged harassment got bad sends a message that women who don't like the situation should quit.

Take the case of Dr. Frances K. Conley, a neurosurgeon and professor at Stanford University Medical School. In a publicized incident, Conley last summer quit over sexual harassment. Weeks later, she returned after the dean promised to seek a new department head. She says the Thomas affair will produce "a backlash on the part of men. Women's complaints will be trivialized, deemed unimportant."

To sensitize workers, Du Pont holds workshops that aim to have a man and woman as leaders. "One of the most compelling messages of this is how differently men and women perceive these issues," says Faith A. Wohl, work force partnering director.

The Thomas affair may prove a milestone if companies keep addressing sexual harassment, if more workers speak out, if offenders repent. Conley, who's been through it, takes a dimmer view: "A golden opportunity, a golden moment has passed. I believe women will retreat into that mode of silence, which they believe is expected of them." Others hope she's wrong.



-- Draft and circulate to all employees a strong policy that precisely

defines such conduct and warns that it can bring punishment

-- Remind employees periodically that top management is committed to fighting

sexual harassment

-- Hold training seminars that sensitize workers to the issue through videos,

lectures, or role-playing

-- Set up dispute-resolution mechanisms that permit private complaints of

harassment and bypass immediate supervisors, who are often the alleged



-- Investigate harassment claims just as thoroughly when management is

involved as when lower-level workers complain

-- Keep the matter entirely confidential

-- If appropriate, discipline with a warning letter, suspension, demotion,

transfer, or discharge depending on the severity of the conduct

-- Ensure no retaliation against the complainant no matter the outcome


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