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Sexual Harasser Can Often Prey On Many VictimsBy Kirstin Downey Grimsley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 22 1996; Page A01
First of two articles
Martin Greenstein was a rainmaker who brought clients to Baker and McKenzie, the na\tion's largest law firm. But women at the firm began complaining among themselves that he was a sexual harasser when he was a partner in the firm's Chicago office in the 1980s. After he transferred to the Palo Alto, Calif., office in the late '80s, a woman secretary there reported similar behavior and took him to court.
During the trial, five women testified that Greenstein had touched them inappropriately, made sexual remarks to them, pressured them for sex and ultimately caused them to resign.
The jury ruled in favor of the secretary in 1994 and awarded her more than $7 million in damages, though that amount was later reduced by the judge and has been appealed. Greenstein declined to comment at length on the case, saying the allegations dated back to 1991 and before, and that he now wanted "to put that incident behind me."
Dan Wassong is chief executive of Del Laboratories Inc., a Long Island-based cosmetics company. His conduct in the office so disturbed women who worked for him that in 1992, three of them protested his behavior to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Fifteen secretaries who worked at Del Laboratories told the EEOC that Wassong had used foul language, worked in his underwear in front of them, urinated with the restroom door open, asked them for oral sex or hit them. About two dozen more women gave the EEOC information about his behavior in the workplace.
The EEOC filed a lawsuit in 1994 against Wassong and Del Laboratories, alleging that the company had tolerated sexual harassment by its CEO. Del Laboratories last year agreed to pay $1.2 million to settle the case, without admitting w rongdoing by Wassong or the company. Wassong declined to comment on the case, his attorneys said. Del Laboratories attorney Mark Dichter said the firm "emphatically denies the allegations of these women."
These two cases illustrate a pattern that is emerging among the hundreds of sexual harassment lawsuits unfolding around the country. Experts call it "serial harassment," a process in which one man will harass numerous women, moving from secretary to secretary and office to office before he finally is stopped. Sometimes the harasser will move to another division or another company, where he repeats the behavior and victimizes more women.
"Most men don't harass anybody. But a few do it to a lot," said Susan Webb, president of Seattle-based Pacific Resource Development Group, a pioneer in the field of sexual harassment prevention training and an expert witness on the topic for the past decade.
Webb said that in the troubled workplaces she has studied, just three to five men out of 100 will create such problems, affecting up to 50 women over time. The problems become more serious, she and others said, if such repeat harassers are allowed to continue their activities and come to believe they will not suffer repercussions if they are caught.
Demographically, serial harassers are hard to categorize, according to these experts. Some are old, some are young. Some are married, some are divorced or single. Some hold prestigious, lucrative jobs, while others barely eke out a living. They are found in all occupations. Many cases have been reported in law firms, on Wall Street, in car dealerships, in the military, in police forces and other traditionally male-dominated workplaces. Many of the male harassers are said to feel bitter toward women, feel threatened by them or view them contemptuously.
"They perceive women to be inferior to them, and that's why they believe they can abuse their power over them," said New York psychologist Michele Paludi, who specializes in working with sexual harassers to change their behavior.
While serial harassers sometimes bring in lots of money for their employers, Webb cautions that they're often problem employees who present ethical difficulties or have bad relations with men as well as women. Many sport an exaggerated masculinity that intimidates both sexes.
"Some have always been bullies, to men in some ways and to women in sexual ways," said Freada Klein, a Boston-based expert on sexual harassment and a frequent expert witness in legal cases. "They are generally feared, generally respected and generally deferred to, and they lose perspective on what is appropriate and inappropriate."
A Company's Role
The Baker and McKenzie case provides a clear example of the financial risks for firms that don't act decisively to stop sexual harassment when it first becomes evident. Trademark attorney Greenstein, now 52, had joined the global firm in 1971; he was a "capital partner," which meant he shared in the profit, with an annual income estimated at $550,000 by the early 1990s.
In late 1991, Greenstein was sued in California state court by Rena Weeks, a legal secretary who had worked with him less than three months before quitting. When her case finally went to trial in 1994, Weeks testified that Greenstein had thrust his knee into the small of her back and yanked her arms back, saying he wanted to see which breast was larger, and had brushed her breast with his hand; on another occasion, he had grabbed her hips, Weeks testified.
Legal secretary Vicki Gardiner, who worked with Greenstein in the Palo Alto office from 1989 to early 1991, testified in the 1994 trial that he had touched her, pressed his body into hers, talked to her about group hot-tubbing and suggestively asked her if she was putting in an "all-nighter" one night when she was working late. According to the court records, Gardiner testified she quit her job when the firm would not transfer her to a comparable job at the same pay after she complained about Greenstein and said she could no longer work with him.
Donna Blow, a secretary who worked with another Baker and McKenzie lawyer, testified that Greenstein repeatedly asked her to go hot-tubbing. When she turned him down, pointing out that he was married and she was gay, he asked her to bring one of her girlfriends for what he called a "three-way," she said on the stand.
"I felt like somebody had kicked me in the stomach," testified Blow, who left her job within a year. "I ran into the bathroom, and locked myself in a stall and I cried for about half an hour."
During the 1994 trial, witnesses testified that Greenstein had engaged in similar conduct when he was working for the firm in Chicago during the 1980s. One woman said in a deposition that Greenstein had crawled under a table in the firm's law library and tickled her foot.
A male partner in the Chicago office of the firm said in a deposition that because of reports of such behavior, he had confronted Greenstein and told him if he did such things again, he would "kick his ass from here to China." Soon after that conversation, Greenstein transferred to the firm's northern California office.
Greenstein initially denied all the allegations in depositions. But later, on the stand, he conceded he had reached into one secretary's shirt and grabbed her bra and that he had made repeated references to dumb blondes to a blonde secretary. He testified he realized he had been "insensitive" in those instances, but he denied the other allegations. He contended that Weeks had been a poor secretary, and his attorney said her complaints were a smoke screen designed to hide her incompetence. She responded in testimony that she had been "petrified" working for him and had been poorly trained by the firm.
Attorney Robert H. Bunzel, who represented Baker and McKenzie, said in a trial brief that Greenstein "has had a history of boorish or childish behavior," but that "no serious or severe conduct . . . was ever communicated to Baker prior to Ms. Weeks' allegations."
He said the firm "responded responsibly," by reassigning Weeks to another position and by requiring Greenstein to attend special sensitivity training.
Baker and McKenzie terminated Greenstein in 1993. The firm testified in court that he had been removed because of the sexual harassment allegations and other professional conduct. Bunzel refused to elaborate.
The jury awarded Weeks $50,000 in actual damages for emotional distress, but awarded her $7 million in punitive damages from Baker and McKenzie. The judge subsequently reduced the award to $3.5 million from Baker and McKenzie and about $225,000 from Greenstein. Baker and McKenzie and Greenstein have appealed the verdict to a California appeals court, and Bunzel said the law firm is confident the amount will be reduced in the appeal process. He said the case is expected to be decided next year.
Boss as Harasser
Mary Dixon Litchhult, an executive secretary to Wassong from May 1992 to late 1993, described him in an interview as a "Jekyll and Hyde." She said Wassong was initially charming at their first meeting at the Plaza Hotel in New York, where he insisted she sample the fresh raspberries with cream while he told her about the job.
But two weeks after she joined his staff, Litchhult said, Wassong's demeanor abruptly changed. She told the EEOC he threw an envelope at her head, striking her near the eye, and started screaming at her. He began doing things like urinating with the door to the restroom open, ostentatiously scratching and rubbing his genitals, making lewd remarks and walking around the office with his fly open, she said.
"Mr. Nice Guy was gone," Litchhult said. She told the EEOC that Wassong had employed 36 secretaries in three years, each quitting one after another.
Jonneigh Adrion, a secretary who started working closely with Wassong in July 1991, said in an interview that she witnessed the same types of things described by Litchhult. She told the EEOC that when female employees complained about Wassong's abusive behavior, he would purse his lips, making a sucking motion with his mouth. She saw this crude gesture as a request for oral sex.
" `You know what you have to do,' " Adrion recalled that Wassong told her on many occasions. Litchhult said he would tell her, " `You know what you have to do to get ahead.' "
Similar behavior had been noted by other secretaries decades earlier, according to their reports to the EEOC. Susan Lewis, now a social worker in Commack, N.Y., said she worked with Wassong as a secretary at the firm in the mid-1960s, when he was a lower-level executive there. It was a more innocent era then, and she recalled that when Wassong frequently rubbed and scratched his genitals in front of women co-workers, she and the other secretaries thought he had fleas, and considered buying him flea powder as a gift.
She told the EEOC that one day in 1965, Wassong came up behind her when she was leaning over a file drawer, and slapped her hard on the buttocks, knocking her forward.
"He really hit me hard, hard," Lewis said in an interview, recalling that as she broke into tears, Wassong walked away laughing, commenting that Lewis, a sometime showroom model who weighed 110 pounds at the time, was getting fat.
Almost three decades later, Wassong did much the same thing to Adrion, she told the EEOC. But by December 1991, times had changed. When Wassong whacked her in the rear, Adrion responded by hitting him back, then slapping him with a complaint to the EEOC.
Adrion was joined in her complaint by two other women in their 20s, including Litchhult. About three dozen more women recounted similar tales to EEOC investigators while they were preparing the case for trial, an agency lawyer said.
Del Laboratories and Wassong agreed to a $1.2 million settlement by the company in August 1995, which was divided among 15 former employees. The company's senior executives also were required, under the terms of the consent decree, to attend a sexual harassment training program. Wassong remains CEO.
Don Livingston, a Washington attorney who also represented Del Labs in the case, said the company settled because it was "cheaper to settle than to litigate."
"Dan Wassong is a driven perfectionist whose intensity has proved to be very beneficial to his company," said Livingston, a former general counsel to the EEOC. "One of the side effects is that he can be an extremely difficult person to work for."
But even pushing an alleged serial harasser out the door may not end the problem. James Plantz was hired as a mid-level human resources executive at Kaiser Permanente headquarters in Honolulu in 1990 and was terminated about a year later. He subsequently found work with a division of security giant Borg-Warner Protective Services Corp., where he supervised hundreds of workers.
But Borg-Warner complained in a lawsuit filed in January 1996 that Kaiser had failed to inform subsequent employers that it had received a "number of complaints from female employees about sexual harassment involving Plantz," including some that "involved physical contact." Borg-Warner alleged that Kaiser even gave him a good performance evaluation, which "Kaiser knew or should have known" Plantz would show to prospective employers.
Some of the allegations made about Plantz have been substantiated by the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, which has issued findings of "reasonable cause to believe" Plantz harassed four individuals who worked for him at Borg-Warner. Ten plaintiffs, including a man and a teenage boy, have brought suits.
Plantz declined to comment on the case, but his attorney, Celia Yurion, called the lawsuit against Kaiser by Borg-Warner "bogus." She said the problems Plantz had at Kaiser Permanente involved a cultural clash between Plantz, a retired Marine Corps officer who is Caucasian, and his female co-workers, whom she described as "shy" Japanese-American women. "His conduct [there] was insensitive or clueless," she said.
In other words, offering a good recommendation about a harasser can backfire, experts on sexual harassment said. "Employers have got to start giving honest references," Klein said, adding that doing so, however, can cause legal problems, should the alleged harasser decide to sue.
Bunzel, who represented Baker and McKenzie, said that this problem forces companies to face what he called a "Hobson's choice," where they must decide if they would prefer to fight a sexual harassment case or a wrongful termination case. "Companies need to do an extensive internal investigation, and then take appropriate action," he said.
But despite the potential liability posed by serious harassers, many companies still simply refuse to look at the problem, even after it is reported, hoping it will somehow go away, said many experts. They said others simply pay off people bringing legal complaints, buying off the problem, at least temporarily.
"I've had CEOs tell me -- one while he was settling the seventh case against the same harasser -- this is the cost of doing business," Klein said. "He said, `This guy brings in millions of dollars in business a year.' "
In addition to risking a costly lawsuit and the potential damage to the company's reputation, she said, the CEO is also telling its best and brightest women that they may be treated in the same way as the women who have been sexually harassed.
"What message are you sending to the work force?" she asks.
Many Voices, One Complaint
Secretary Jonneigh Adrion began working closely with Del Laboratories CEO Del Wassong in 1991. She told the EEOC that when female employees complained about her boss's abusive behavior, he would purse his lips, making a sucking motion with his mouth. She saw this crude gesture as a request for oral sex. Adrion recalled him saying: " `You know what you have to do.' "
Executive secretary Mary Dixon Litchhult, who worked for Wassong from May 1992 to late 1993, said in an interview that Wassong was initially charming at their first meeting. But two weeks after she joined his staff, Litchhult said, Wassong's demeanor abruptly changed. She told the EEOC that he began doing things like urinating with the door to the restroom open, ostentatiously scratching and rubbing his genitals, making lewd remarks and walking around the office with his fly open. Litchhult said: "Mr. Nice Guy was gone."
Secretary Susan Lewis worked with Wassong in the mid-1960s. She told the EEOC that one day in 1965, Wassong came up behind her when she was leaning over a file drawer, and slapped her hard on the buttocks, knocking her forward. She recalled that as she broke into tears, Wassong walked away laughing, commenting that Lewis, a sometime showroom model who weighed 110 pounds at the time, was getting fat. Lewis said in an interview: "He really hit me hard, hard."
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company