Interpreting Sexual Harassment

October 09, 1991|By Jean Marbella Sun reporter Gerri Kobren contributed to this story.

WHEN SEVERAL NEW ENGLAND PATRIOT FOOTBALL PLAYERS "WIGgled their waggles" and made lewd remarks to '' Boston reporter Lisa Olson, she called it sexual harassment. The male team owner called it a "fly speck in the ocean."

When an IRS employee received a barrage of suggestive love letters from a co-worker, she called it sexual harassment. The male trial judge called it "genuinely trivial."

And now, Oklahoma attorney Anita Hill, a former assistant to Clarence Thomas says the Supreme Court nominee repeatedly expressed sexual interest in her -- and she calls it sexual harassment. Mr. Thomas, "totally and unequivocally" denies the allegations.

Although the Senate yesterday postponed its vote on Mr. Thomas' Supreme Court nomination so that both sides could present their cases, some male U.S. senators called Ms. Hill's allegations "a smear" or gave them "zero credence."

When the topic is sexual harassment in the workplace, men and women seem to be screaming across a gulf so wide and using language so disparate that they can neither hear nor understand one another. In fact, one poll, which came up in testimony for a Florida case of sexual harassment, found that 75 percent of men questioned said they would be flattered by sexual advances in the workplace while 75 percent of women said they would be offended by such advances.

"The men, when they're cross-examined in hearings, either deny they said anything or admit to it but say they were just joking," said Lee Hoshall, assistant general counsel for the Maryland Commission on Human Relations, which investigates charges of sexual harassment.

"Somehow, they think that's acceptable," Mr. Hoshall said.

Reactions to charges of sexual harassment often seem to split on gender lines, said lawyer Marley Weiss, a University of Maryland Law School professor who specializes in labor law.

"Men cannot visualize themselves as victims in a case like this but they can visualize themselves as the perpetrators," Ms. Weiss said. "Everyone has these little guilty fears. It's like with drunk driving, you can visualize yourself one night having one too many drinks; with sexual harassment, men fear that they might do something at work that will lead to a false accusation. So you get what you've seen on Capitol Hill -- attack the victim, 'she must be making it up for whatever reasons.' "

The responses to Anita Hill's claims, for example, show why so few sexual harassment cases are ever filed, Ms. Weiss said. Ms. Hill, for example, never filed a complaint herself.

"I think a lot of women are in lower level jobs, maybe clerical ones, and they need their jobs. They're afraid to complain," said Jennifer Burdick, executive director of the Maryland Commission Human Relations, which handles discrimination issues of all sorts.

The commission receives about 1,200 complaints a year, of which less than 100 involve sexual harassment, Ms. Burdick said. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said about 6,000 of its 60,000 complaints last year involved charges of sexual harassment.

And although most sexual harassment cases are filed by women, some men report that they, too have been the victims of suggestive remarks, jokes or touching while on the job, according to a survey conducted by the Confederation of Health Services Employees.

Companies increasingly are being held liable if one of their employees sexually harasses another, lawyers said. Which is why, in part, that many companies now have official policies on how employees can lodge a complaint of sexual harassment and how it will be settled.

At the Wilmington, Del.,-based DuPont, for example, all employees go through a four-hour workshop titled, "A Matter of Respect." During the workshop, employees watch vignettes of hypothetical situations, such as a female sales representative working up a business proposal over dinner with a male client who then asks her, "Can we finalize this in my room?"

Another vignette reverses the genders. After watching the vignettes, employees are encouraged to talk about the situations and work out how they would handle the situations, said Dar DiSabatino, a consultant in the company's human resources department.

Distinguishing between what is friendly, interested attention and what is sexual harassment is not always something that can be outlined in a policy.

"You might have people who are touchy, they are always putting hands on someone. But a lot of people are uncomfortable with it. You should pay attention to the effect of that, not what you intended," Ms. DiSabatino said.

Ms. Weiss said that while many companies have procedures for dealing with sexual harassment, employees may still be hesitant to use them.

"There is still some risk that [the accused] will retaliate," she said. "It's illegal to be fired, but many employers will do that. Or you may be nibbled to death . . . with anything that's short of being actionable."

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