Sexual Harassment Training Classes

Sexual Harassment Awareness Article

Donna Tuttle

Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. The Tailhook incident. The VIA Metropolitan scandal. There is no doubt about it. The 1990s brought sexual harassment to the forefront as one of America's hottest legal issues. The media has bombarded the public with scandalous tales. Congress, in turn, gave us the Civil Rights Act of 1991. And corporate America implemented policies designed to educate their workers and punish harassers. But if you think sexual harassment was merely the issue of the decade, a topic that will take its place in the morgue of bygone social concerns, think again. Sexual harassment is here to stay.

Just ask Ron Aaron. As director of the Rape Crisis Center, Aaron is well aware that sexual harassment still is rampant in the workplace. The reason: Many women who have been sexually harassed seek the counsel of the Rape Crisis Center.

"Basically, these women don't know where else to turn. Sexual harassment is a crime much like sexual assault in that it involves power, control, domination and anger. It is pure intimidation, and men tend to belittle it," Aaron says. "It is as common now as it was 10 or 15 years ago. And it is not about to go away."

Indeed, despite the push for public awareness and education, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has not seen any significant decline in sexual harassment complaints. In 1995, the commission's most recent full-year statistics, there were 216 sexual harassment complaints filed in San Antonio. That is 17 fewer sexual harassment complaints than were filed in 1994, but 50 more than were filed in 1993, 101 more than 1992 and 124 more than 1991. Through the third quarter of 1996, there were 198 sexual harassment cases filed in the Alamo City.

So far, the sexual harassment complaints in our city seem to mirror those nationwide. The total number of sexual harassment cases filed in the United States increased steadily from 3,363 in 1991 to 9,070 in 1995. On average, here and nationwide, sexual harassment complaints make up about 10 percent of overall employment complaints.

The media attention and corporate seminars are not in vain, though. The message that sexual harassment is illegal is getting out. The effect: There seems to be less of the blatant quid pro quo type of sexual harassment, like when the boss demotes an employee after the employee turns down the boss' advances, says Michael Fox, an employment law attorney with the local office of Haynes & Boone.

"Most people today are aware that type of action is a straightforward act of sexual harassment. Don't get me wrong, it still exists. But that sort of harassment has lessened," Fox says. "What we see more today is the hostile environment type of sexual harassment."

In a hostile environment harassment case, an employee or an employer's conduct interferes with an individual's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment.

Paul Montoya, president of Human Resource and Management Services (HR&M) in San Antonio, develops employee policies for local companies. His consultation involves setting up investigative and disciplinary procedures for harassment charges. In that role, Montoya has seen endless examples of hostile environment sexual harassment in all types of businesses, from small mom-and-pop shops to large corporate establishments.

Take, for example, the case involving a group of white collar professionals in a big firm who went to lunch at a topless bar. Upon their return they made suggestive remarks to the firm's secretary and other female colleagues. "You know, they came back all giggly saying things like `Oh you have a great figure; you could work there (at the topless bar)," Montoya recalls. "They made those women feel humiliated."

In another case Montoya investigated, several women in a small company complained that a male colleague would walk past them and while pretending to fix his tie, he would stick his elbow out and brush the women's breasts. The women in the office banded together and gathered enough evidence to file a complaint with management. Turns out, what the man thought to be a coy joke was an intimidating form of sexual harassment and he received disciplinary action from his company.

These instances -- where the harassers claim they merely were "having fun" or "didn't really mean it" -- pervade the office scene today. "I think sexual harassment still is a problem because we still don't know exactly what it is -- so people use that as an excuse," Fox says. "For example, is a pat on the back sexual harassment? Probably not. But if it is a pat on the back every day and the person patting is calling you honey and sweetheart, maybe it is."

Fox, who is board certified in labor and employment law, says even the U.S. Supreme Court cannot decide on an exact definition of harassment, leaving the judges and juries to examine each case individually.

"Part of the problem is that some sexual harassment can fall into the gray area. What is offensive to one person is not offensive to another. In addition, what is not offensive to someone at first may seem offensive six months later," Fox says. For example, two single employees willingly start making advances toward one another. Then one of the employees gets involved in another relationship. Suddenly, what was acceptable behavior during the mutual flirting months may seem like offensive conduct on the part of the person in a new relationship.

The only way to help employers and employees decipher the mixed messages and act appropriately is to continue the training and education, experts say. Many companies implemented sexual harassment policies three or four years ago but now fail to follow up with annual refresher courses. "Sexual harassment policies need to be restated on a formal annual basis," HR&M's Montoya says. "Every company gets new employees and new supervisors, so that message needs to be repeated."

Attorney Fox says that firms need to go one step further and incorporate their sexual harassment policies into the "very fabric of their corporation. Employers need to keep reinforcing that the company just will not tolerate that type of behavior," Fox says. "After someone makes a complaint, it often can be difficult to discern whether or not this was clear sexual harassment. But what some companies are doing to alleviate that problem is labeling the real gray area harassment as `inappropriate behavior' and issuing punishment for inappropriate behavior. I think if we try to cut off all inappropriate behavior at work it will help decrease sexual harassment," Fox says.

For example, Fox elaborates, an employer yelling at his employees may not be sexual harassment, but it is inappropriate behavior at work. "Employers need to say, `That is not how we treat people here,'" Fox says. Reiterating that fundamental issue of respect can set the whole tone of an office, he adds.

The Rape Crisis Center's Aaron says that companies need to back up their policies with punishments that mean something. "There needs to be a swifter response by corporations. Many companies are concerned only with the legal liability on the firm -- not the personal pain and humiliation this causes human beings," Aaron says.

Officials at the EEOC concede that sexual harassment charges often are the most difficult to investigate because usually there are no witnesses or physical evidence. "We go in and talk to employees, employers, colleagues. But the evidence is mostly testimonial, so we often have to look for patterns or other victims," says Esther Herrera, enforcement manager at the local EEOC office. However, victims do have the law on their side. Despite a few murky areas, the statutes defining blatant sexual harassment are clear, she adds.

Unfortunately, even with all the public awareness campaigns, corporate training and punishments, sexual harassment is not likely to ever disappear. The reason: Some who go through training never apply what they've learned. "There are individuals out there who sit through a class and never get it. It's kind of like they just disconnect ... like it doesn't apply to them," Fox says.

What is more, on another level, basic instinct and attraction between men and women always will exist. "With men and women in the workplace the temptation will always be there," Montoya says. "It takes a lot of discipline and willpower to stick with it for eight or nine hours a day -- not to make a comment on how someone looks or make advances -- even jokingly -- toward a colleague. But people need to be professional in their behavior."

No one is immune from the temptation of crossing over the line between camaraderie and sexual advances. "You look at some of this country's biggest corporate leaders and politicians -- people who you think have so much to lose -- and they still risk having an affair. So you see how powerful it is," Fox says. The best bet: play it safe -- always. Says Montoya, "People on both sides really end up hurt."

Donna Tuttle is a San Antonio-based free-lance writer.

© American City Business Journals Inc.

 

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