Six Experts Suggest Ways To Negotiate The Minefield

There's one thing supporters of Clarence Thomas and Anita F. Hill would probably agree on: how poorly the Senate investigated the matter. "Many human resource managers would have been a lot more knowledgeable about handling this bombshell," says Arlene Johnson of the Conference Board. So BUSINESS WEEK asked some human resource specialists, along with other experts, what they would have done had the affair unfolded in a workplace.

Freada Klein, management consultant, Klein Associates, Cambridge, Mass.:

"First thing, before the investigation, try to arrange a separation of the accuser and the accused: 'Anita, how about visiting an EEOC field office for a while?' A company never gets in trouble by asking what a complainant wants and then trying to accommodate her. And you want to avoid defaming the accused.

"An unsubstantiated case is merely two divergent stories, neither of which can be confirmed. In that instance, say to the accuser: 'We've interviewed, followed your leads, we're not saying we disbelieve you--but we can't take definitive action. Let us know of further occurrences or of any retaliation.' "Say the same thing to the accused, adding: 'We had a duty to investigate. You're cleared. Bear in mind, however, that if we get another complaint, we may have to take it more seriously.'

"If it were a chronic, serious case, there should be a published announcement: Everyone should know we've had complaints, we've investigated, we've taken such-and-such action. But all without identifying the harasser."

Kenneth H. Kirschner, management attorney, Breed, Abbott & Morgan, New York:

"The speed and response of an employer is crucial. An immediate investigation should occur, in logical sequence.

"I'd first take the victim's statement. Ask for any documentary evidence or corroborative evidence: 'Did you tell anyone? Did anyone see you crying or hear loud voices?' Ask witnesses first if they'd seen any evidence of sexual harassment without mentioning names. Then, get specific, asking about the victim. Then, mention the alleged harasser.

"Then, confront the harasser. Again, first ask in general terms: 'Ever ask anyone here out,' etc. Only then do you mention specific names.

"The action taken depends on the person's seniority. Often, it's apparent that harassment is indicative of poor management skills and ability to deal with people in general. You might recommend a demotion and/or sensitivity training. Whatever the action, don't treat it differently from any other sort of move. If the employee is terminated, just say it was 'for violation of our policies.' "

Darlene Siedschlaw, director Equal Employment Opportunity/Affirmative Action Compliance, US West: "If you can't specifically say it did or didn't happen, we would leave the parties in place. Frankly, moving people is the last thing you should do. Why should the accuser change her career path because she may have been harassed? As for the accused, if you move him, you may just be moving the problem to another work group. We'd try to resolve the issue by making sure he understands our sexual harassment policy and what is appropriate and what's not. We'd do it verbally but would put a notice in his personnel file, indicating he'd had this review."

Michael J. Hoare, plaintiffs' lawyer, St. Louis:

"Were this a court case, it would turn on Hill's credibility, coupled with her prior consistent statements to her four witnesses. Judge Thomas would not be allowed to bring in witnesses who'd say they'd not witnessed what Hill claimed. If I were advising a company, I'd have to advise them the prognosis is not favorable. . . . They'd pay a lot of money to get rid of this case."

Faith A. Wohl, directorof work-force partnering,Du Pont:

"Here, it would all happen in a totally confidential way, with the information strictly limited to those who need to know. First, we appoint an investigative team -- one man, one woman. Preferably, they don't know the parties. They talk first to the complainer, then to the harasser. In between, they talk to witnesses: observers, people in a similar position to the victim, people who know one or both parties. They try to develop a mosaic of information. . . . At the end, the investigators take it to the line managers. Management then makes decisions, with recommendations from human resources. Possible courses of action: dismissal, demotion, transfer--or penalizing compensation. There's no cookbook for this, but clearly, it's seen as a performance issue. And it goes in the harasser's file for one year."

Janet Andre, vice-president of advisory services, Catalyst, New York:

"If the behavior were just beginning, or had happened three or four times, I'd just take him aside and tell him to cut it out. If he continued once he was informed it was offensive, there would be intermediate steps: no bonus, not getting promoted. If the behavior continued over a period of time, and several others complained, then that would be grounds for dismissal.

"Don't put it in the corporate newsletter. But top management should know why steps were taken, and tell everyone involved what the resolution was. The grapevine will take care of the rest."