Sexual Harassment: Revisited Again

Unless you have [enviably] been living on a remote South Pacific island the past eighteen months or so, it is obvious that sexual harassment and gender discrimination has recently been a huge topic. Brought up by both parties in the race for the white house, the mistreatment of women seemed to be a major issue continually being rehashed. In addition, we were bombarded with news reports of the Former Fox news anchor Gretchen Carlsen coming forward with allegations against the CEO of Fox News Channel and winning a big settlement.

Surprising? No! But the most recent contentious election has caused me to think about the complicated workplace of today and how things don’t seem to have changed all that much.

Early in our consulting endeavors I think I had a rather faulty assumption that harassment was a simple outgrowth of individuals who–through a combination of unexamined biases and stereotypes–perpetrated their destruction on those around them. This rather linear model of thinking was that if harassment was a fault of individuals then the remedy must be to simply train those individuals. Pretty much every consultant/educator seemed to think that way. The primary teaching methods involved a presentation of landmark legal decisions and case examples. Hundreds of thousands of in-person and computer/Web-based classes have been delivered since the Meritor Bank v Vinson decision and the higher profile coverage of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. In all honesty, most of the training has been very good. Usually presented are facts pertaining to the harmful workplace effects of harassment. Light is usually shed on the dollar impact of harassment as it relates to legal fees, lost productivity and turnover.

I know in our case, we have worked diligently to protect our organizational clients and to create a safe and productive workplace. Sound familiar? Frankly, I thought, things would improve nationwide due to the sheer amount of training and the fact that the older generation was on the way out. Another faulty assumption of mine was that the older males, who came from a culture of male domination, were the primary culprits while the younger males (and females) who have experienced the media coverage of gender equality would behave in a much more acceptable manner. After all, aren’t we becoming more enlightened? Wrong!

I was tipped off by my own daughter who, in her late 20s, was working for a start-up tech company on the cutting edge of commercial drone technology. Her workplace was nothing short of cool! Few offices, no cubicles, jeans and t-shirts. The walls almost seemed to pulsate from the creative energy stemming from frequent bullpen meetings. “The energy is palpable!” I ranted, as I walked out of the building having been invited by my daughter. “Man, I wish I could go back thirty years and experience this! You must get up every morning just dying to get to work!” With tears in her eyes she said, “You have no idea what I put up with.” Over lunch she described the all too familiar scenarios: the lewd comments, sexual innuendo, being steered toward “secretarial” duties like those from the 1950s even though she was hired in marketing. For an hour, she described an environment like those highlighted in court proceedings; behaviors that made no logical sense. Frankly, any being short of a barnyard animal should have known better. Furthermore, she said her friends have shared similar stories. Things have simply not changed all that much!

Her accounts are corroborated by the EEOC. A June 2016 Select Task Force report on the study of harassment in the workplace stated that “workplace harassment remains a persistent problem. Almost fully one third of the approximately 90,000 charges received by EEOC in fiscal year 2015 included an allegation of workplace harassment.

So why has harassment not been significantly reduced? Stay tuned! I will give you my thoughts on that in the 2nd installment of this newsletter. In the meantime, if this article has given you pause please take a moment to share your thoughts with me.