Sexual harassment in workplace is explored at Annapolis seminar

December 02, 1992|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

The personnel director of a downtown Annapolis hotel was at the seminar to learn how to raise employees' awareness about sexual harassment. But she was also there as a woman.

Like almost all of the other women in the room, Deborah Seyler has been subjected to unwanted comments, looks, jokes and gestures.

Yesterday's workshop at Loews Annapolis Hotel on West Street underscored both the troubling frequency of sexual harassment and the difficulties caused by the changing rules in the workplace.

More than 50 men and women from businesses, law firms, restaurants and government offices in Annapolis gathered to talk about the issue. The emotional, three-hour discussion included a legal briefing on the city's law banning sexual harassment.

In April, Annapolis became Maryland's first jurisdiction to adopt a sexual harassment law, sending a stern message to employers that intimidating behavior in the workplace will not be tolerated.

Sexual harassment is now a crime punishable by a $1,000 fine or up to six months in jail. Alderman Carl O. Snowden, who ushered in the legislation after the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas controversy, emphasized that it would strengthen workplace rules and close a loophole in federal and state laws.

City Attorney Jonathan Hodgson told the group yesterday that victims of sexual harassment outside Annapolis have fewer options. They can bring complaints to the Maryland Human Relations Commission or pursue legal action under the Civil Rights Act passed by Congress last year. But they often must wait for a long fact-finding review.

If they have been subjected to unwanted physical contact, they can also seek a battery complaint through District Court, Mr. Hodgson said. But in Annapolis, victims of verbal sexual harassment, threats or taunts can also go directly to District Court or the police to file charges.

The Annapolis law also covers companies with fewer than 15 employees, which are exempt from the existing process.

Several victims of harassment have called the YWCA Women's Center in Annapolis since the law was passed, said Director Michaele Cohen. One woman had left her job after she was subjected to continuing intimidation by her boss, Ms. Cohen said. But the woman was afraid to press charges.

"Despite the law, despite the increased awareness, women are very reluctant to come forward," Ms. Cohen said. "They recognize the repercussions."

The YWCA sponsored the workshop, along with the city and the Greater Annapolis Chamber of Commerce.

James C. Karantonis, director of Human Relations & Communications Inc., an Ellicott City-based consulting firm, urged the group to think about the fine line between innocent flirting and harassment.

Through role playing, he showed how jokes and gestures can be misinterpreted.

He said the end result -- not the intent -- counts if the employee feels anxious, uncomfortable or humiliated.

"A man who is accused of harassment will say, 'I didn't mean it, I was just complimenting her, I was just trying to get to know her,' " he said. "But intent is not the issue."

Men in the audience talked about their fears that any flirting or courteous gesture might be misconstrued as harassment.

Women said there were some behaviors that they clearly find annoying or intimidating.

They gave a variety of examples -- from male bosses touching them to men yelling sexual comments when they cross a street.

As the personnel director for Loews, Ms. Seyler said she wanted to pick up some tips to better inform and protect female employees. "I think many men do not know what sexual harassment is," she said.

When she talked about the comments she's heard, another woman chimed in, "You can't even cross the street without being leered at."

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