Businesses and non-profits alike must be aware of potential liability for sexual harassment. A written sexual harassment policy may help employees know what conduct is not appropriate. So what exactly is considered sexual harassment? There is often a fine line. But a fact sheet for employees gives some guidance and a great deal of information.
There are two major varieties of unlawful sexual harassment. The first type is “quid pro quo” meaning “this for that.” This action can only be committed by someone who can make or effectively influences employment actions by firing, demotion, denial of promotion, etc. This type of harassment is usually committed by a supervisor, manager, or someone else with more power than the victim. An example would be a supervisor who tells an employee that she must be sexually cooperative or be fired.
The second is the “hostile environment,” which can result from unwelcome conduct of supervisors, co-workers, customers, vendors, or anyone else with whom the victimized employee interacts on the job. Some things that can lead to a hostile environment include discussing sexual activities; telling off-color jokes; unnecessary touching; commenting on physical attributes; displaying sexually suggestive pictures; and granting job favors to those who participate in consensual sexual activity.
Now, to the stars whose missteps—and crimes—present cautionary tales for anyone running a business.
Clarence Thomas Hearings
In 1991, the nation came to a standstill as the televised Senate Judiciary Committee hearings showed law professor Anita Hill testify that she suffered sexual harassment by the soon-to-be-named Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. This case put the issue of workplace sexual harassment out in the open and propelled countless conversations. An ABC News article states, "Anita Hill lifted the veil and made this part of the public conversation.” Further, Hill’s testimony gave many women the courage to tell their own stories and the number of complaints of sexual harassment increased as a result.
Navy Tailhook Scandal
Just a year later, then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney said to Paula Puopolo, “Because of your complaint, I have had to remove the secretary of the Navy.” Puopolo, while working as an Admiral’s aide, joined her boss, Rear Admiral Jack Snyder, in Las Vegas to attend the Tailhook convention of Naval aviators in September 1991. According to a Wall Street Journal article, she and many other women were subjected to a ritual called “the Gauntlet.” Up to 200 intoxicated men ambushed her as she walked down a hallway. She was groped, pinched, and passed along by sets of hands before being dropped to the ground.
Puopolo reported the incident to her boss who said, “that’s what you get when you go down a hallway full of drunken aviators.” Despite his pledge to address the problem, nothing had been done when she went public.
Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Co.
In 1975, Lois Jensen was one of the first women hired to work in Eveleth iron mine in northern Minnesota. She and her female co-workers suffered harassment from the men who still believed that women should stay at home. Jensen was also stalked by one of her supervisors. The website Sexual Harassment Support says that out of fear, they remained quiet.
The harassment became intolerable and Jenen filed a complaint in 1984. It took years for her to find an attorney to move the case to move forward. Eventually more women joined in her lawsuit. In 1998, the women settled with the company for $3.5 million. This was the first sexual harassment class action lawsuit in the United States.
Six-year-old v. Brockton, Massachusetts School District
While this isn’t your typical sexual harassment case, it did gain the attention of the international media. Again, questions were raised as to what behavior should be considered sexual harassment, especially by someone so young. An article in The Enterprise states that in 2006, a first-grader was accused of sexually harassing a classmate. The principal told the boy’s mother that during class, her son placed two fingers inside the girl’s clothing and touched her skin. He was sitting on the carpet behind the girl.
The principal suspended the boy from school for three days for violating the sexual harassment policy. In addition, the principal contacted the police, the Department of Social Services, and the District Attorney. No charges were brought, but in 2007, the boy’s family sued the city of Brockton. After this incident, the school revised its sexual harassment policy. The mayor personally apologized to the parents of the boy and the city entered into a six-figure monetary settlement of the case.
Senator Bob Packwood
NOW’s website (The National Organization for Women) has a separate section with information about this case. After dozens of campaign workers and employees complained about sexual harassment by Senator Packwood, a Republican from Oregon, he finally resigned in 1995. “[T]he chair of the Ethics Committee, said at a news conference, ‘No work-place in America ought to tolerate the kind of offensive, degrading sexual misconduct that the ethics committee finds Senator Packwood to be guilty of. And it certainly cannot be tolerated in the United States Senate either.’"
Television host David Letterman allegedly had affairs with employees. One wrote for the Vanity Fair website telling her experience working for him.
“Did Dave hit on me? No. Did he pay me enough extra attention that it was noted by another writer? Yes. Was I aware of rumors that Dave was having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Was I aware that other high-level male employees were having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Did these female staffers have access to information and wield power disproportionate to their job titles? Yes. Did that create a hostile work environment? Yes. Did I believe these female staffers were benefiting professionally from their personal relationships? Yes. Did that make me feel demeaned? Completely. Did I say anything at the time? Sadly, no.”
This statement sums up some of the issues that make sexual harassment a very complicated one. Often victims don’t come forward. A job is at risk. Sometimes the behavior is tolerated in silence or the employee moves on to another job and wants to forget about what happened. But the bottom line is that sexual harassment is never ok and as a business owner, you are responsible for providing a harassment-free workplace. Taking precautionary steps now can save trouble later on.
Anita Hill Lifted The Veil, by Betsy Stark. October 2, 2007.
Sexual harassment settlement for Brockton boy costs city $180K, by Maria Papadopoulos. February 12, 2010.
Letterman Extortion Raises Questions for CBS, by Bill Carter and Brian Stelter. October 2, 2009.
Letterman and Me, by Nell Scovell. October 27, 2009.
For more information about sexual harassment visit the EEOC website.