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  • Court makes sexual harassment cases easier

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  •   For Employers, a Blunt Warning

    By Kirstin Downey Grimsley
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, June 27, 1998; Page A10

    He was one of AT&T Corp.'s hottest new prospects. But soon after he arrived, the executive's secretary complained he was propositioning her – a violation of the company's policy banning sexual harassment in the workplace. AT&T's legal and human resources departments investigated her complaints, and within 60 days, AT&T showed him the door.

    "The word gets around real fast when a six-figure executive gets hauled up on charges and asked to resign," said Burke Stinson, an AT&T spokesman, describing how the company has in recent years developed an increasingly tougher policy banning sexual harassment and specific procedures designed to investigate it when it occurs.

    Most U.S. corporations, like AT&T, ban sexual harassment in the workplace. Yesterday, two Supreme Court rulings, in effect, warned corporations: Not only should you have such policies, you also must be sure you are strictly enforcing them.

    "The message to employers is get out these policies, dust them off and make sure it's not just a written policy but it reflects the actual practice in the workplace," said Susan Meisinger, senior vice president of the Alexandria-based Society for Human Resource Management. "You need a vibrant, real policy of no tolerance, with an avenue for people to complain if they feel they have been harmed."

    The court ruled that employers may be liable even if they are unaware of sexual misconduct in the workplace. Experts in the field advise companies to prevent such behavior by taking several steps, such as: make sure all current employees and new hires know that sexual harassment in the workplace is not allowed and will result in disciplinary action; create a system in which workers can file complaints without fear of retaliation and be assured they will be fairly and promptly investigated; train all supervisors to identify and investigate sexual harassment; make it clear that no one in the organization, even top executives, will be exempt from discipline if appropriate.

    Barbara Brown, a District-based attorney who specializes in representing employers, said yesterday's Supreme Court rulings underscore the need for companies to take such forceful steps.

    "It doesn't change any advice we've been giving to employers, it only intensifies the importance of having proper policies in place and enforcing them aggressively," Brown said. "It merely endorses what we've been telling companies all along."

    At Bethesda-based Marriott Corp., for example, the company's policy, revised and toughened last year, forbids sexual harassment by managers, co-workers, vendors, guests or customers. In bold type in the corporate policy manual, the company informs workers that proven offenses "will result in disciplinary action up to and including dismissal, and may lead to personal legal and financial liability."

    "This is an issue Marriott takes very seriously, and we have a sexual harassment policy that makes that concern very clear," said Marriott spokesman Tom Marder.

    But the problem, said Ellen Bravo, executive director of Milwaukee-based 9to5, the National Association of Working Women, is that while many companies have such policies on paper, many do not enforce them in practice. Bravo said that her group continues to field thousands of calls each year on its telephone hot line from anguished workers who say they are being sexually harassed at work. Many of the callers tell 9to5 counselors that their employers have policies banning sexual harassment, but retaliate against people who bring complaints, Bravo said. As a result, many employees are afraid to complain.

    "It's a `hear-no-evil, see-no-evil' attitude that's been a big problem in the workplace," Bravo said. "The Supreme Court has taken away the incentive for employers to bury their heads in the sand."

    San Francisco attorney Philip Kay, who specializes in sexual harassment cases, said he was "surprised and pleased" by the court rulings.

    "Employers will have to institute better training for their supervisors, and monitor the work environment more closely," said Kay, who won a $3.75 million jury verdict against employment law firm Baker McKenzie in a sexual harassment lawsuit in 1994. "Employers will have to be more careful about who they place in positions of authority. Sexual harassment is not about sex, all the experts agree, it's about abuse of power, and usually it's men abusing their power over women."

    The court rulings follow recent announcements of hefty financial settlements paid out to settle charges of sexual harassment. Two weeks ago, Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America Inc. agreed to pay $34 million to settle a class action sexual harassment lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of hundreds of women employed at Mitsubishi's auto manufacturing plant in Normal, Ill. The payment comes in addition to approximately $10 million the company paid last year to settle similar charges made in a private lawsuit.

    In February, Astra USA, a Swedish-owned pharmaceuticals company in Westborough, Mass., paid $10 million to settle a lawsuit that involved allegations made by dozens of female employees.

    Attorney Richard Seymour of the U.S. Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said he believed the rulings would give new life to cases resting in lower courts that might otherwise have been dismissed on procedural grounds rather than an examination of the merits of the cases. "It means a lot of cases that would have been dismissed yesterday are good cases today," he said.

    Meisinger, of SHRM, said she believed the rulings, in the short term at least, may spur more lawsuits to be filed by newly sensitized workers who feel emboldened by the court into bringing claims.

    "It will result in more litigation in this area," Meisinger said."

    She said it will also spawn a mini-boom among law firms offering sexual harassment training and consultation assistance to corporate clients. "I'd bet the ranch that every law firm with an employment practice is working on the outline of a seminar on how to avoid sexual harassment lawsuits in the future . . . and our advice hot line will be ringing off the hook."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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