Sexual harassment does not seem to be quite as hot a topic as it used to be and that may be a good thing. Hot topics--like hot temperatures--tend to generate a lot of passion and very little rational thought.
Now that the situation has cooled off a bit, I can suggest a simple and effective system for dealing with sexual harassment. It's called punishment by publicity.
Let's stop pretending that the so-called "power pinch" is something that occurs in total secrecy. The pinch itself may be private, but the pincher is probably as well-known as the office Avon lady.
I discovered the ways of the working world during my first job with a large organization. I had gone to a conference to help train executives in communications skills and encountered an official who shall remain nameless. He wanted to learn communications in many new and creative ways.
Confiding in a female colleague after the trip, I learned that my experience with Mr. Nameless was hardly unique, But she blamed herself--not Mr. Nameless. "We should have given you The List," she said sadly.
She then recited a list of every pincher, every pusher, every prurient soul in our organization.
I have changed jobs several times since then but each time I have asked for The List along with the ladies' room key and directions to the nearest carryout coffee shop. Sure enough, my female coworkers were quick to respond with a rundown on the human hazards in the new workplace.
I learned who struck by day and who loomed only after-hours; who by the copying machine and who by the coffee machine; who by cocktail party and who by conference; who preyed on subordinates and who preferred colleagues; who stayed close to home and who operated only far afield. Some were listed as equal opportunity harassers: no woman between 16 and 60 was safe.
The information was so impressive, it clearly deserved to be institutionalized. Why, I wondered, do we continue to ignore this essential area of employe orientation? Along with the standard Welcome to the Company, the list of legal holidays and the insurance information should come The List. We brief workers on what to do in case of nuclear attack; should we do less in case of attack by the copy room clutcher?
Knowing organizational behavior, The List would soon become part of the employe handbook, and be translated into transparencies for overhead projection by the training department.
Preventing harassment before it takes place seems better than waiting until it happens. After the pinching is over, it becomes a case of "her-word-against-his- word"--with the burden of proof left to the victim. In trying to prove her case, the victim will always find someone ready to claim that the finger that's pointed in accusation today is the same finger that was crooked in invitation yesterday.
I know that The List will polarize people, the way that discusssions about harassment always do. But punishment by publicity may be our most potent weapon against people abuse. We may never be able to get harassers' heads on a platter--but we certainly can put their names in lights.