In 1993, the EEOC cited three situations in which sexual harassment can occur. In these instances, verbal or physical conduct toward an individual:
1) Creates an intimidating, offensive, or hostile environment.
2) Unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work.
3) Aversely affects an employee’s employment opportunities.
For many organizations, it’s the offensive or hostile environment issues that are problematic. Just what constitutes such an environment? Challenging hostile environment situations gained much support from the Supreme Court case of Meritor Savings Bank v Vinson. This case stemmed from a situation in which Ms Vinson initially refused the sexual advances of her boss. However, out of fear of reprisal, she ultimately conceded. But according to court records, it did not stop there. Vinson’s boss continued to hassle Vinson subjecting her to severe hostility that affected her job. In addition to supporting hostile environment claims, the Meritor case also identified liability: That is, in sexual harassment cases, an organization can be held liable sexual harassment actions by its managers, employees and even customers.
Although the Meritor case has implications for organizations, how do organizational members determine whether something is offensive? For instance, does sexually explicit language in the office create a hostile environment? How about off color jokes? Pictures of women totally undressed? The answer is it could. It depends on the people in organization and the environment in which they work. The point here is that we all must be attuned to what makes follow employees uncomfortable and if we don’t know. Then we should find out! Organizational success will, in part, reflect how sensitive each employee is towards another in the company. At DuPont, for example the corporate culture and diversity programs are designed to eliminate sexual harassment through awareness and respect for all individuals. It means understanding one another and, most importantly respecting others’ rights. Similar programs exist at FedEx , General Mills, and Levi Strauss.
If sexual harassment carries with it potential costs to the organization, what can a company do to protect it self. The courts want to know two things – did the organization know about or should it have known about, the alleged behavior? And what did management do to stop it? With the number and dollar amounts of the awards today organizations experience even greater need for management to educate all employees on harassment matters and to have mechanisms available to monitor employees. Furthermore, victims no longer have to prove that their psychological well being is seriously affected. The US Supreme Court ruled in 1993, in the case of Harris v Forklift Systems, Inc., that victims do not have to suffer substantial mental distress to receive a jury award. Furthermore, in June 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that sexual harassment may have occurred even if the employee had not experienced any negative job repercussions. In this case, Kimberly Ellerth, is a marketing assistant at Burlington Industries, filed harassment charges against her boss because he touched her suggested she wear shorter skirts and told her during a business trip that he could make her job very hard or very easy. When Ellerth refused the harasser never punished her: in fact she even received a promotion during the time the harassment was ongoing. What the Supreme Court’s decision in this case indicates is that harassment is defined by the ugly behavior of the manager, not by what happened to the worker subsequently.
Finally, whenever one is involved in a sexual harassment matter, managers must remember that the harasser may have rights too. No action should be taken against someone until a thorough investigation has been conducted. Furthermore, the results of the investigation should be reviewed by an independent and objective individual before any action against the alleged harasser is taken. Even then, the harasser should be given an opportunity to respond to the allegation and have a disciplinary hearing if desired. Additionally, an avenue for appeal should also exist for the alleged harasser – an appeal heard by someone in a higher level of management who is associated with the case.