Harassers In High Places

With legal payouts rising, more managers who cross the line are winding up in rehab

Scott Stacy was driving home from work in late September when news of the Mark Foley sex scandal came over the car radio. The details were shocking. Foley had sent sexually charged e-mails and instant messages to former teenage pages, in which he made repeated references to sexual acts and body parts. But to Stacy, the story was all too familiar. He runs what is becoming an increasingly important fixture on the treatment scene for the professional class: a rehab for sexual harassers. "I work with so many people in positions of power," says Stacy, founder of Lawrence (Kan.)-based Acumen Assessments Inc. "When they fall, they fall real hard."

Companies have long packed off their troubled throngs to treatment centers for alcohol and drug addiction. But in recent years more and more have begun sending the serial workplace sex harasser, or "boundary violator," to get help, too. With jury awards for sexual misconduct in the office on the rise, companies figure it's better to spend the thousands of dollars on psychological treatment than to wait for a lawsuit that ultimately could cost millions. What's more, in the age of e-mail -- as the Foley scandal demonstrated all too clearly -- it's getting easier to prove that improper behavior has taken place. Shipping a managers off to rehab, says Garry Mathiason, a partner with the San Francisco employment law firm Littler Mendelson, "shows the employer took it seriously and did something about it."

In recent years, a half-dozen facilities have made the treatment of sexual harassers a specialty. Nestled in anonymity in such places as Mississippi and Georgia, they feature bucolic-sounding names like Pine Grove and Ridgeview. For his part, Foley checked into Sierra Tucson, a 160-acre spa-like treatment center, where a typical stay can cost up to $65,000. Foley's lawyer issued a statement that the former Republican congressman is being treated for alcoholism. But Sierra Tucson specializes in various maladies, including sexual addiction and compulsivity.

What can managers expect at one of these places? Following a psychosocial assessment, therapists tailor a recovery program to deal with the offender's underlying problems. In the case of graphic language and locker-room joshing, the manager may simply need a week's worth of assessment and education. In more serious cases, such as cyberstalking and predatory come-ons, therapists work to uncover the original trauma that is spurring the behavior. That process can take several months and includes both group and individual therapy. Patients learn what emotions trigger such things as "boundary drift" and "inappropriate channeling of unmet needs." Sexual harassers, therapists say, often have damage from childhood. The idea is to teach them how to cope with these issues.

DIGITAL TRACKS

Sometimes an accuser's account differs wildly from the accused's. That prompted the Professional Renewal Center in Lawrence, Kan., to put a polygrapher on staff. But as the world becomes one giant archive, the instances of he-said, she-said are fading. The disinhibiting power of e-mails and voice mails are seductive to sexual harassers, but also memorialize the wrong in writing. "Men, frankly, are still pretty dumb about this," says Dr. Paul M. Earley, director of adult addiction medicine and the impaired professionals program at Ridgeview Institute in Smyrna, Ga. Then again, all that data can be useful to therapists; companies often send rehabs reams of incriminating electronic evidence scraped off a harasser's hard drive.

Most companies have some form of sexual harassment training these days. And the number of charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission fell from 15,549 in 1995 to 12,679 in 2005. But with jury awards and settlements headed in the opposite direction, experts expect rehabs to remain in demand. Employees who file complaints often won't sue if they feel the manager has changed and made an apology. Of course, recidivism does occur. In those cases, the backsliders, just like drug addicts, are often sent straight back into treatment.

By Michelle Conlin

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