Thomas Vs. Hill: The Lessons For Corporate America

The tortured tale has all the elements of a classic case of sexual harrassment. The male boss indignantly swears he did nothing wrong. The female employee insist he did. There are no other witnesses. The aggreived woman waits years before coming forward. And other men seem perfectly willing to ignore the matter.

There's one crucial difference, however, between thousands of other sexual-harassment cases and the controversy swirling around Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and University of Oklahoma law professor Anita F. Hill: This one is being played out in a Senate hearing room. The Senate's investigation into Hill's allegation that Thomas made sexual overtures to her while she was his personal assistant in the early 1980s has turned a spotlight on behavior that is all too common in the workplace. Happily, regardless of its outcome, the incident may raise Corporate America's consciousness on the issue.

How Hill's allegation of sexual harassment has been handled--the Judiciary Committee's delay in acting, its confusion over whether to look into the charge confidentially, and some senators' immediate disbelief--makes the Thomas matter "a clear-cut case of what not to do," says Janet Andre, a vice-president at Catalyst, a New York-based nonprofit group that researches women's workplace issues. She adds: "But it's understandable, because the definition of sexual harassment has been evolving since the early 1980s."

NEW DEFINITION. A decade ago, most formal complaints involved threats of the "sleep with me or lose your job" variety. Today, many people still think of harassment as involving such quid pro quo suggestions, actual touching, or crude gesture. But in recent years, the courts have come to further define sexual harassment as the creation of a hostile work environment that demeans or demoralizes someone on the basis of sex. In a case decided last January, Robinson vs. Jacksonville Shipyards, a Florida federal court ruled the standard for what's offensive is based on the perception of "a reasonable woman." So companies aiming to comply with the law must regard reports of sexual harassment from just that reasonable woman's viewpoint.

Since 1986, uhen the Supreme Court, in Meritor Savings Bank vs. Vinson, alerted employers they might be open to liability if they didn't have a policy on sexual harassment, many companies have issued formal statements. But management consultants say that isn't enough. To protect accusers and the accused, companies need mechanisms in place to deal with sexual-harassment charges before they come up.

The first step, if the company hasn't already done so, is to write and then distribute to all employees a definition of what management will and won't tolerate. "Just saying we're against sexual discrimination is not enough," says Janice Bellace, an associate professor at the Wharton School of Business. The policy should explicitly use the phrase sexual harassment.

Many management consultants also suggest training sessions for managers--both male and female. These could include films, case studies, and role-playing. The idea is to help both men and women appreciate things from the other side. Not surprisingly, the sexes perceive the issues quite differently. "When men look at sexual harassment, they tend to think of touching," says Silver Spring (Md.) management consultant Lauren N. Nile. "Women tend to consider the hostile work environment--her chest being stared at or sexual jokes."

OUTSIDE REVIEW. Most important: There should be an avenue for complaints separate from the usual grievance channels. What's crucial is to have an objective outsider do the reviewing. Companies should appoint an executive to investigate harassment cases. And confidentiality must be emphasized. "It's difficult for women to come forth," says Claudia Withers of the Women's Legal Defense Fund. As in rape cases, the victims of sexual harassment are often reluctant to speak up, fearing that if they do, their complaint will become a battle of credibility between the accused and accuser.

Experts also agree that managers must act on complaints immediately. But the approach should be tailored to the individual nature of the offense and the parties involved. Given the confusion over what harassment is, the executive with a complaint should consider the possibility of an honest misunderstanding. As Andre puts it: "There are people who haven't realized that behaviors that once were common are no longer acceptable."

What often makes words or gestures offensive is the simple fact that they occur at the office. Despite its intimate nature, "sexual harassment isn't something personal between the man and the woman," says Bellace. Rather, it's a common workplace issue--one employers ignore at their peril.