Sexual Harassment Still Pervasive in the Workplace

Want to hear a collective groan throughout your office? Mention a mandatory sexual harassment meeting. "Nobody ever wants to sit through that three-hour seminar of old, grainy videos and lectures," says human resource manager Karen Holt.

And yet, sexual harassment continues to be a pervasive force in the workplace. And no, it is not confined to politicians, members of the clergy, movie stars or professional athletes.

According to an AOL Jobs Survey, one in six persons has been sexually harassed in the workplace. Out of those harassed, 43 percent say it was from a manager and 51 percent say it was from a peer. Only 35 percent of people harassed reported it; women (47 percent) are more likely to do so than men (21 percent).

Harassing behaviors

So what, exactly, is considered sexual harassment? Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 defines it as occurring "when one employee makes continued, unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, to another employee against his or her wishes."

These can include:

  1. Unwanted jokes, gestures, offensive words on clothing and unwelcome comments and repartee
  2. Touching and any other bodily contact such as patting a coworker's back, grabbing an employee around the waist, or interfering with an employee's ability to move
  3. Repeated requests for dates that are turned down, or unwanted flirting
  4. Transmitting or posting e-mails or pictures of a sexual or degrading nature
  5. Displaying sexually suggestive objects, pictures or posters
  6. Playing sexually suggestive music

One victim's story

Jade (not her real name), a television producer, faced all these and more. "There was not a moment when my supervisor left me alone," she recalls. "He cornered me in the office kitchen, he called me into his office for no reason other than to ask me when we would 'do' it. Once, he gave me an unexpected out-of-town assignment. As I checked into the hotel, he suddenly appeared beside me, even though he had no reason to be there! It was obvious he had sent me there just to be with me.

He begged me to have dinner with him. I figured I'd better do it and get it over with, so afterward I could go back to my room and be left alone. After dinner my boss followed me to my room. He tried to come in, but I rushed in and locked the door. Regardless of the fact I was clearly uninterested in his advances, he wouldn't leave," she recounts. After he pounded on the door and sobbed uncontrollably for over an hour, she called her cameraman and asked for help. "I found out the next day that he had to be taken to the emergency room because he had a severe anxiety attack. I couldn't face him or the office, so I resigned. One year later, I heard that my successor sued him for sexual harassment and won a $200,000 settlement. She was smart enough to tape him," Jade concludes.

A persistent problem

Since sexual harassment cases became more prevalent in the '90s (who can forget Anita Hill's testimony against Clarence Thomas?), there is now a 97 percent compliance among companies for mandatory sexual harassment training. Yet, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which compiles yearly statistics on sexual harassment charges, tens of thousands of cases are filed each year and millions in damages are recovered. In 2010 for instance, 11,717 charges were brought -- 83.6 percent from women -- yielding $48.4 million in monetary benefits (not including monetary benefits obtained through litigation) for charging parties and other aggrieved individuals.

According to the Sexual Harassment Support website, a 2008 telephone poll by Louis Harris and Associates on 782 U.S. workers revealed that 31 percent of the female workers reported they had been harassed at work, and 7 percent of the male workers reported harassment. Yet, only 38 percent of the targets took any action -- a statistic that, along with the AOL poll's findings, bolster researchers' estimates that only 5-15 percent of victims formally report problems of harassment to their employers or employment agencies such as the EEOC.

Men are targeted, too

Sexual harassment against men is also an issue, yet many are reluctant to pursue charges. As the station manager for a major national airline, Cody Kesseli (not his real name) was required to interact with flight crews. Creating a lighter atmosphere by laughing and joking was a crucial part of his job. Until one crew member took it too far.

"One female flight attendant cornered me every time I came on the aircraft, made crude remarks telling me in great detail what she'd like to do to me," says Kesseli. After several too-close-for-comfort encounters, he reported her harassing behavior to her superiors. The outcome: She said it was the other way around -- he came on to her. That "he-said, she-said" led Kesseli to quit his job, one he loved. He found out later that the flight attendant had a side job: as a dominatrix.

No easy recourse

According to a 1988 survey of Fortune 500 companies, harassment costs a typical large company $6.7 million each year due to absenteeism, turnover and loss of productivity. Although 50 percent of the women who have experienced harassment at work say that they simply try to ignore it, these same women lose 10 percent productivity on average. About 24 percent of harassment victims take leave time to avoid the harasser, while 10 percent choose to leave their jobs at least in part because of the harassment.

For both Jade and Kesseli, choosing to leave was the easiest solution. "I know of cases where people's personal lives have been exposed and threats made against them. It takes years to settle and you'd better have admissible proof," says Jade, adding, "I had already had 19 nervous breakdowns, as the Rolling Stones song goes. I couldn't take anymore."

So, what do you do if you're experiencing any of the issues mentioned here? Many companies have written policies requiring that any complaint be brought immediately to the attention of the HR department. Says the EEOC: "Although the law doesn't prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision."

That's the official line. Unfortunately, as Kesseli found out, reporting the problem doesn't always work out. As for Jade's situation: That supervisor, having settled one sexual harassment claim against him, is still at work in the same job.

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