The weekend following the Supreme Court's mid-June decision in a sexual harassment case, Gannett Co. had one of its attorneys speak to the company's annual personnel conference in Denver, giving 90 of the Arlington-based communications company's representatives his interpretation of the decision.
Gannett managers who had not recently conducted the company's training program on sexual harassment were told that they should.
Deborah Lilly, Giant Food Inc.'s manager of fair employment, sent a memo to all the company's managers following the decision, reminding them of its policy.
Both companies have policies that outline what sexual harassment is, training programs that teach supervisors and other employes how to deal with it, and guidelines that provide for investigation and punishment of employes who violate the companies' policy on harassment. Both say they have fired employes in the last few years for sexual harassment.
"For good companies, the ruling isn't going to make a significant difference," said Madelyn Jennings, senior vice president of personnel for Gannett. "For the rest of the companies that may not have focused on it, it could bring more attention to the topic."
Among the Washington area's largest companies, the field is nearly evenly divided among those that have specific harassment policies and procedures to deal with complaints, up to and including firing, and those that have a general equal employment opportunity statement that does not specify sexual harassment, according to an informal survey of the companies.
Marriott Corp., Giant, Gannett, Potomac Electric Power Co., Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Cos. and the Washington Post Co. all have policies specifically addressing sexual harassment, though the extent of their programs varies. Others, including USAir Group Inc., Fairchild Industries Inc., MCI Communications Corp. and Martin Marietta Corp., have nonspecific equal employment opportunity statements banning discrimination on the basis of sex, religion or ethnic origin.
"We've looked at the Supreme Court case ," said Frank Schmidt, director of human resources for Fairchild. "We don't think we have to do anything differently."
However, attorneys who have studied the court's decision disagree with personnel directors who believe that a general policy will keep them free from liability.
In its decision, the court pointed to the employer's lack of a specific policy addressing sexual harassment and the fact that the grievance procedure required the employe to complain first to her supervisor, who in this case was also the harasser.
Victor Schachter, an attorney who represents management in EEO litigations, recommends that employers take preventive steps to protect themselves from successful harassment suits:
Have a written policy that explicitly defines and prohibits sexual harassment as defined by EEOC guidelines.
Educate supervisors and other employes about what the policy is, what is prohibited and how and to whom to complain.
If possible, identify a woman in the personnel department to take complaints.
Make sure all complaints are thoroughly investigated and proper disciplinary action is taken.
Many companies are aware of the problem and have written policies, said Bruce A. Fredrickson of Webster & Frederickson, who often handles harassment cases. "But the question is, are they going to implement what they put on paper? They know it's illegal. Are they going to enforce the law?"