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There is much uncertainty about sexual harassment. Over time, courts
will decide cases and a body of DO's and DON'Ts will emerge, but until
that happens, much reliance is placed on the common sense and decency of
supervisors and employees.
Given the new awareness and the sensitivity of some people, does this
mean that no employees can date each other, or even flirt or joke around
Supervisors are held to a different standard than other employees. It's
always bad judgment for a supervisor to date someone who reports to
him/her, but we all know it occurs . . . and that it isn't always
harassment. When there are intimate relations between a supervisor and a
subordinate, someone else in the department may feel that the
subordinate is getting preferential treatment, and that may be sexual
The EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) Compliance Manual, in
the chapter on sexual harassment, says: Where employment opportunities
or benefits are granted because of an individual's submission to the
employer's sexual advances, the employer may be held liable for unlawful
sexual discrimination against other persons who were qualified for but
denied that employment opportunity or benefit.
What's difficult for many people to understand is that employees may
feel harassed by behavior that's far short of blatant demands for sexual
favors. A man may think he's merely flirting and being complimentary,
but a woman may feel harassed. The crucial element is the reaction of
the recipient. Many people (but not all) can tell whether the person
they're flirting with is enjoying it and wishes it to continue. If both
parties are comfortable, and it doesn't interfere with work, it isn't
Can you ever compliment a person of the other sex without risking a
sexual harassment charge?
It depends on what you're complimenting. Compliments are not illegal,
but if your compliments are on the size of a woman's breasts, you are in
trouble. Moreover, if you seem to focus on her/his appearance more than
on her/his work, then you may also have a problem.
Several men and women have been standing around, telling stories and
joking by the copying machine. If one of the women doesn't object to
the jokes and sexual innuendos, can you assume it's OK with her and that
she is not being harassed?
Silence does not mean assent, but a complaint of sexual harassment in
this case would be hard to sustain, in the absence of other facts.
If you are a supervisor, however, you must be very cautious because many
women are hesitant about raising objections for fear of jeopardizing
their position. The potential problem you face as a supervisor is that
you may appear to be accepting or tolerating sexually- oriented behavior
at work, which may send the wrong message to a few people. If these are
people you know well, and there is plenty of give-and-take by all
participants, it would be difficult to sustain a sexual harassment
complaint, in the absence of other sexually-oriented behavior.
Suppose you are a supervisor and you know that one of your employees is
pestering another for a date. He's also sending love letters, but there
are no threats. She hasn't said anything to you, but you've heard from
others that she's most uncomfortable. What do you do?
If you know of a situation like this between two employees, even if the
behavior occurs off-site, you are under an obligation to see that the
behavior does not recur. She has made it clear that the attention is
unwelcome and intimidating -- that means it is sexual harassment in the
court's view. Because you supervise both, you must take affirmative
action to prevent the behavior from continuing.
Since men and women may interpret things differently, how can a man know
what he can and can't say or do without stepping over the line?
To expect that people who work together aren't going to flirt, joke and
even date is unrealistic. And to tell people that they can only talk
about business-related matters is even worse. But it is not always easy
to know what someone else may consider offensive or intimidating. A
good general rule is to be sensitive to the reactions of others and
honor their request to avoid any sexual behavior or discussion that
might be offensive.
There's a growing body of research that shows that men and women
interpret many things quite differently, and words or behavior you or I
think are inoffensive, may be embarrassing or demeaning to someone else.
A good general rule is to be sensitive to the reactions of others and
honor their request to avoid any behavior or discussion that is
If you are a supervisor, you may be wise to avoid joining into those
discussions, but you'll make a fool of yourself if you try to monitor
people's conversations. A good general rule is to be sensitive to the
reactions of others and honor their request to avoid any behavior or
discussion that is offensive or embarrassing.
Often there are no witnesses to a sexual harassment incident and it all
comes down to the credibility of the parties involved and the prejudices
of those in authority. As the victim, how can a person be confident
that complaining won't cause even more trouble?
An employer's policy and procedures or its good intentions, coupled with
all the EEOCs and laws and courts in the country are not going to
prevent some offensive incidents from happening. And justice will not
always be served. Nevertheless, you should have faith that in the long
run, it is better to object and complain than simply to suffer in
silence and hope that the problem goes away.
Here's another look at that situation, but this time you are the
supervisor. There are no witnesses to an alleged sexual harassment
incident and it all comes down to the credibility of the parties
involved, both of whom report to you. What do you do?
Transferring the victim may be regarded as punishment for blowing the
whistle, so that's definitely out. Moreover, if you discharge an
employee without good proof, you may be vulnerable to a wrongful
discharge suit, and courts have awarded enormous damages in those cases.
(There has been at least one case where the employer lost BOTH a sexual
harassment complaint for not acting expeditiously enough and a wrongful
discharge suit for acting too forcefully!)
The problem of sexual harassment today is both serious and widespread.
And most of the courts agree with that.
In spite of the barrage of headlines and articles about sexual
harassment, many people are still blind to how common it really is.
Here's what male executives think:
A 1993 poll conducted by the Harvard Business School reported that two
thirds of the respondents thought that reports of sexual harassment are
greatly exaggerated. In a similar poll of executives in smaller firms,
58% said that sexual harassment was not a problem in their organization-
-only 12% said it was a significant problem. But the fact is that 90%
of Fortune 500 companies had a sexual harassment complaint filed against
them in 1992. The number of complaints filed doubled between 1991 and
1992 -- and the rate continues to rise.
In May 1994, the Wall Street Journal reported that sexual harassment
awards ballooned . . . "Last year, about 1,500 people -- mostly women -
- won $25.2 million from employers in EEOC cases involving sexual
harassment. That is more than double the amount paid out in 1992.
Other studies have shown that anywhere from 50 to 85% of all female
employees feel that they have been subjected to sexual harassment
sometime during their careers. Those studies included women lawyers,
business executives, military personnel and government employees, as
well as secretaries and manufacturing workers. Although there may be a
great deal of uncertainty about whether a particular behavior is
harassment or not, the conclusion seems inescapable that most women
believe it is a problem . . . which means we are all going to have to
deal with that perception as well as the reality behind it for years to
There is much speculation about the motivation of a victim who complains
about sexual harassment. But the fact is that most just want to get on
with the job, free of the unpleasantness of sexual harassment.
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