"Sexual Harassment Policies Should Be Clear, Reviewed"
Dr. Connie Sitterly
Certified Management Consultant

Pat a fanny here, share an off-color joke there, E-mail or voice mail an X-rated message, share the Playmate of the Month centerfold with your colleagues - it's all in fun - or is it? What's the matter with comparing the secretary's body parts with the Centerfolds' - can't she take a joke? "She" since 9 out of 10 times it's the male who harasses. However, men are harassed, too.

From Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, media has tuned in, as well as employers, to one of our most serious, sensitive, confusing, and costly workplace issues - SEXUAL HARASSMENT. It's illegal, recognized as an offense under Title VII since 1977.

Research shows that 90% of Fortune 500 companies have dealt with sexual harassment complaints. More than a third have been sued at least once, a quarter have been sued over and over, costing the average large corporation $6.7 million a year. It's not uncommon for an employer to spend an average of $200,000 on each complaint that is investigated in-house and found to be valid, whether or not it ever gets to court.

Just as a manager wouldn't likely tolerate theft, allow absenteeism or lowered productivity go unheeded, neither can rumors, claims, or observations of harassment. While negotiating raises or promotions contingent upon sexual favors, such as, "My decision will be based on your decision to sleep with me," others claims to hold up in court must rest on either a persistent and calculated pattern of antisocial behavior. Sexual harassment, though, usually isn't about sex -as it's about power, the abuse of power, whether it's with supervisors, co-workers, even outsiders.

Can you still be pals? Can you ask a friend for a drink? Can you ask a colleague out on a date? According to Equal Opportunity Commission guidelines which defines sexual harassment and delineates two types of illegal conduct, there are a few things that can not be tolerated.

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when: 

  1. Submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly as a term or condition of an individual's employment.

  2. Submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the bias for employment decisions affecting such individual.

  3. Such conduct has the purpose or affect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment.

The EEOC definition sets two criteria for sexual harassment: that the conduct in question is both unwelcome and of a sexual nature.

While posters, magazines, and/or flyers of a sexual nature, rape, physical assault may all seem obvious - ogling, staring, lewd comments, questions about personal life, dirty/sexual jokes, unwanted requests for dates, obscene poems, patting, grabbing, pinching, kissing are also considered sexual harassment behaviors.

Popular press has heightened some misconceptions of sexual harassment such as the fear of prohibiting social interaction between the sexes. However, sexual harassment is not considered to be a friendly, normal, pleasant interaction, as long as no reasonable person is offended. Common sense, common courtesy, and mutual respect help to create a workplace where both sexes can enjoy each other's company and achieve the purpose of the workplace - accomplish our work.

It is not a perfect world. Some lack common sense, common courtesy and mutual respect. Therefore, it is in the best interest of most organizations to prevent harassment from occurring and to create, at a minimum, a hostile-free environment, still a long way from teamwork and effective communication really needed to achieve business objectives. Just imagine....

Imagine trying to produce error free work on a computer or using a knife in a kitchen while someone from the back begins touching . . . . 

Imagine the exchange of communication with a supervisor who repeatedly asks to you go to a motel, although you have repeatedly said no.

Just imagine endless possible scenarios undermining confidence, self-esteem, productivity, turnover, quality, service, and teamwork. Perhaps now is a good time to reassess if your organization and management is doing enough, and if not - why not?

Does you organization provide the following measures:

  • Clear, well distributed sexual harassment policy in two or more languages if applicable?

  • Company philosophy states disapproval of harassing actions?

  • Investigate complaints in a timely manner?

  • Track and monitor managers who do not follow company policy or who retaliate?

  • Encourage employees to share concerns?

  • Clearly, repeatedly communicated by management that sexual harassment will not be tolerated?

  • Have clear procedures for handling complaints?

  • Have an impartial person, usually in the human resources department, as a contact point?

  • Provide ongoing, comprehensive sexual harassment training and guidance (in two or more languages, if applicable) to understand what sexual harassment is and what it is not, and the consequences, procedures, and importance of an atmosphere free from harassment?

Set up clear policy and procedures regarding sexual harassment so employees know where and how to report sexual harassment. Be sensitive to the importance of an employee's complaint, ensuring that the complaint is promptly and fairly investigated."

Just as we would not tolerate erosion of morale or lowered productivity, we must not tolerate sexual harassment. It's impact to both company and individuals is profound. While putting a price tag on self-esteem or self-image may seem difficult, many court judgments seem able to do so. Regardless of the impetus currently given this issue, is it sufficient to prepare to meet our challenges to create a productive, enjoyable workplace.

Copyright, Connie Sitterly, all rights reserved.

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