Getting Serious About Sexual Harassment

Co-pilot Kathy Gillies had endured plenty from her male colleagues in the three years she had worked for United Airlines Inc.: propositions, pornographic pictures in the cockpit, discussions of masturbation. But this summer, after she charged that she was attacked by her flight captain in a hotel room, she filed a sexual harassment claim with the airline, requesting not to be assigned with him again. United investigated, but concluded " . . . we have been unable to establish that what you alleged to have occurred between you and Captain X actually took place." So United refused to guarantee the two would not be scheduled together.

That was the final straw for Gillies, one of 436 female pilots out of 8,400 at United. On Oct. 13, she filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court against the airline and several employees. UAL Inc. hasn't responded to the charges of sexual harassment and discrimination, saying only: "We treat any such claims as serious."

LAME STEPS. Kathy Gillies is a pilot in Los Angeles, but she could be an attorney in Miami, a bus mechanic in Louisville, or a former city council aide in New York City, to name a few instigators of sexual-harassment suits or charges that have surfaced with increasing regularity. A year after the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, the Equal Employment Oportunity Commission reports a 50% jump in harassment claims (chart, page 82). Management consultants, labor lawyers, and private advocacy groups, such as 9 to 5 and the NOW Legal Defense & Education Fund, report that calls for information from companies and individuals have tripled. A recent survey of 607 women conducted by the National Association for Female Executives (NAFE) finds that 60% say they have experienced sexual harassment--up 7 percentage points from a poll taken right after the hearings.

More than half the pollees said their companies still haven't addressed the problem. When they do, they all too often try a token approach--posting a policy or handing out a list of dos and don'ts. "It's encouraging that there's lots of talk about harassment still," says Helen Neuborne, executive director of the NOW Legal Defense & Education Fund. "But has there been real change in corporate behavior? No."

Still, the hearings did induce some employers to take sexual harassment seriously. In particular, it introduced many to "hostile workplace" harassment--a corporate atmosphere or behavior that would offend a reasonable woman--which is far more common than the explicit-threat type. Companies now have a financial incentive as well: The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991 means victims of sexual harassment can receive punitive and compensatory damages. Says Susan M. Benton-Powers, a partner at Chicago law firm Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal: "The hearings made them concerned about the issue. The act raised the concern of the bottom line."

Figuring it costs less to invest in prevention than in litigation, many companies have established training programs or revised their current ones. Seattle management consultant Susan L. Webb, author of Step Forward: Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, notes that at one time, companies routinely ordered 20 to 50 copies of a training video or manual on dealing with sexual harassment. Now, it's more like 2,000 to 3,000--indicating a desire to educate the entire work force, not just senior managers. Miami-based Knight-Ridder Inc. now requires all employees to take a two-hour workshop on sexual harassment issues. In the past 10 months, 6,000 out of 20,700 staffers have attended. Responding to requests from front-line managers, Conoco Inc. in Houston has also intensified its training, augmenting a two-year-old program with a workshop specifically devoted to hostile-workplace harassment.

Other companies, in reaching for a broader audience, have customized their policies, tailoring language and examples of offensive behavior for the warehouse and executive office. Instead of a lecture, training sessions are now more interactive, involving role-playing. And some companies have employees do the teaching. Mining company FMC Wyoming Corp. in Green River, Wyo., hired a consultant to teach staffers to train its work force of 1,200. "This way, it's not a commandment coming down from management but something you can relate to with your peers," says Judy Boyce, FMC training coordinator. With consultants charging up to $2,000 a day, internal trainers can also save the company a bundle.

Unfortunately, the organizations that have responded the most in the past year tend to be the ones that are already enlightened. The hearings did send many first-timers to consultants, but only to request unrealistically short programs--gender awareness in an hour. Wider Opportunities for Women, a national employment group, has received five times the number of calls it got in 1991. But when companies hear about WOW's hours-long, systemic training program, about 70% of them back off.

Sometimes, the training just doesn't take. Ellen Bravo, national director of 9 to 5, recounts a company where, after leaving a training seminar, men reported to female co-workers: "From now on, we'll call you `stupid jerk' instead of 'stupid bitch.' " And at a Colorado oil company, several male employees played porn videos in the company cafeteria just weeks after finishing a training program. "When training doesn't work," says Susan Webb, "the problems are usually not around the training but about management's stance and its handling of complaints."

NEW CHANNELS. Many companies are reevaluating their complaint systems. In the NAFE survey, 46% of the women whose companies had taken steps since the hearings said their employers had established a grievance procedure. Where once they advised a victim to go to her boss, many corporate policies now call for an independent person within the company (usually female) to investigate complaints. Other companies establish both formal and informal channels. Palmer & Dodge, a 360-employee law firm in Boston, believes it's the first in the country to establish an ombudsperson to counsel victims privately. It also lets employees file a complaint through an impartial mediator.

Northern States Power Co. in Minneapolis has strong carrot-and-stick approaches. Even before the hearings, it was developing a thorough investigation policy. Alleged victims could file complaints through their supervisors, the human resources department, or a panel of peers. Results of investigations--with names deleted--are available to any employee and published annually. This past year, after a 15% jump in requests, sexual harassment workshops were offered. One plant manager credited the training with helping him deal quietly but effectively with a pornographic cartoon found on the property. All 7,000 employees, 27% of whom are women, received a brochure and a letter from CEO James J. Howard reiterating the company's "zero tolerance for sexual harassment." Says Hazel R. O'Leary, executive vice-president for corporate affairs: "This is a business issue. It doesn't have to do with law or morality but about having a productive work force."

In other cases, management's efforts have sparked tension. In the wake of diligent antiharassment efforts, UNUM Life Insurance Co. in Portland, Me., has had an increase in complaints and subtle changes in the work atmosphere. "With even so much as a simple compliment, you have to be careful in telling people they look nice," says Administrative Assistant Deborah J. Winters. Freada Klein, a management consultant in Cambridge, Mass., has seen a more substantial backlash: companies forbidding office romances, or male executives declaring they won't put a woman on a team that travels out of town or ask a female subordinate to join them for a business dinner.

WRONG MESSAGE. Klein worries that for all the we-won't-tolerate-this talk, "companies still have a tendency to treat cases on the relative value of each party to the corporation rather than the seriousness of the offense." And even when the company takes punitive action, making it stick can be difficult.

Witness what happened to Chrysler Corp. In 1989, it fired an employee who, while talking on the phone, walked up behind a female worker, squeezed her breasts, then announced into the receiver: "Yup, they're real." The fired employee's union, the Allied Industrial Workers of America, filed a grievance, saying he hadn't been given fair warning. An arbitrator agreed, ordering the employee reinstated with a month's suspension without pay--a decision upheld by two appellate courts. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case. Although the matter was decided on technical due-process issues, the case can send the wrong message, worries Chicago employment attorney Lawrence R. Levin: "People will think harassment just isn't that important."

Much of the confusion may be a necessary step on the road to dealing effectively with sexual harassment. Even if heightened sensitivity is all that's been accomplished so far, that's no small thing. But companies can navigate this bumpy patch if they reach beyond quick-fix remedies to systematically educate, and keep on educating, their entire work force. Like crime, sexual harassment may be impossible to eradicate. The ideal is not tolerating it when it happens.

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