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Men account for nearly 1 in 5 complaints of workplace sexual harassment with the EEOC

Perry Funk, a nuclear worker from Lynchburg, Va., is suing his employer because he alleges management allowed a male co-worker to sexually harass him for three years. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

A long wished-for promotion brought better working hours and a big increase in pay for Perry Funk, who had already clocked 15 years at a nuclear manufacturing facility in Lynchburg, Va.

But over time, he found that his new job was making him miserable. He reported to a more remote part of the facility, and he said he began to experience what he described as daily sexual harassment from one of the only other workers in the building.

“It started out game playing, joking,” he said. “It got worse and worse.”

Last fall, he filed a lawsuit against his employer, BWX Technologies, which manufactures nuclear reactors used in submarines and aircraft carriers for the U.S. Navy. He said the company discriminated against him by allowing the harassment, which included regular sexual comments and propositions, to occur — and, later, by allowing co-workers to retaliate against him for reporting it.

The company is contesting the allegations in court. Thomas R. Bagby, a lawyer with Woods Rogers PLC in Roanoke, who represents the company, said officials would not comment on matters in litigation.

Results of an internal investigation that the company reported to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in response to the discrimination allegations found that Funk’s co-worker did engage in behavior that was harassing and threatening but that the company did not discriminate against Funk because it took “swift action” to correct the behavior once it was reported. The response was obtained by Funk’s attorney, Roanoke-based Melvin Williams, and shared with The Washington Post.

Over the past six months, the #MeToo movement has shined a bright light on pervasive harassment that women have experienced in the workplace at the hands of men over decades. Some male celebrities, including former NFL player Terry Crews, have come out as survivors of sexual misconduct. But overall, few men have spoken out about their day-to-day experiences of sexual harassment at work, though surveys and other data show it is not uncommon for them.

A CNBC poll in December found that 10 percent of men reported being victims of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct at work. Nearly one in five — about 17 percent — of complaints filed with the EEOC come from men, a rate that has remained relatively consistent over the past decade.

Among the cases the commission has filed during that time are workplace discrimination suits against a Christmas tree farm in Oregon and a car dealership in Albuquerque on behalf of men, who say they were targets of sexual misconduct. Those cases led to settlement agreements.

Women working in male prisons face harassment from inmates and co-workers

In September, the EEOC sued the Charlotte-based operator of a Golden Corral restaurant, alleging that a male assistant manager created a hostile work environment for a male dishwasher who has autism by calling him a “retard” and repeatedly requesting oral sex. Litigation is pending; the company denies the allegations.

Also last fall, the EEOC sued another fast-food chain, Chipotle Mexican Grill, alleging that it allowed a female restaurant manager in San Jose to sexually harass a 22-year-old male shift manager by groping and propositioning him and posting a daily “sex scoreboard” with details about staff members’ sex lives. A mediation hearing was scheduled for later this month. In a public statement, a Chipotle spokesman said the company does not tolerate discrimination or harassment in any form.

The government does not track information about the gender of alleged harassers, but researchers say that men are harassed more often by other men than by women.

In some cases, harassing behavior is motivated by sexual desire and pursuit. More often, it’s motivated by a desire to assert power, said Jennifer Berdahl, a professor at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia who studies sexual harassment and gender stereotypes in the workplace. “It’s about dominating or humiliating others,” she said.

Many men are targeted for their gender identity or for not being sufficiently masculine, she said.

In one case brought by the EEOC, a New Orleans construction company in 2014 ultimately agreed to pay $125,000 in compensatory damages in a consent judgment ending five years of litigation, including multiple appeals, to a former male ironworker who the plaintiff’s attorneys said was targeted for not meeting the gender stereotype of a “rough ironworker.”

The superintendent on the job made lewd comments and gestures, and he called the ironworker “princess,” according to the complaint.

Sexual harassment at work is underreported in general but particularly for men, said Ernie Haffner, an attorney adviser in the Title VII division in the office of legal counsel for the EEOC.

Men are often embarrassed to report the treatment, or they fear that people will not believe them. “There’s a stereotype that men should not be bothered by it,” he said.

Funk, 53, said he was at first hesitant to talk about what he said he was experiencing at work.

“ ‘You are a man. You should be able to protect yourself,’ ” he recalled thinking to himself.

But day after day, he became more anxious and upset by the way his co-worker acted, he said. According to the complaint Funk ultimately filed in U.S. District Court, his co-worker regularly bragged about his penis, referring to it with nicknames.

When Funk went to the bathroom, he would offer to go with him, the complaint said. When other employees visited the building, he would tell them that Funk had performed sexual acts with him, it said.

“It was so humiliating,” Funk said in an interview.

Funk said that the first time he put a name — “sexual harassment” — to the behavior was when he was leaning over the water fountain and his co-worker came over, unzipped his fly and put his crotch next to Funk’s face. “Getcha some,” he said. He did that multiple times, according to the complaint.

Funk began to dread going to work. He said he lost sleep and took increasing doses of anxiety medication. Some days, he would get so upset at work that he would clock out early and go home, according to the complaint.

He told his supervisor, who advised him to “Look past it,” because the co-worker would be retiring soon, according to the complaint.

His wife also advised him not to escalate the issue further. She feared that he would make his situation worse, she said.

Funk said he did not want to risk his job, which paid well, especially given that he does not have a college degree. His father and his uncles worked there before him, and it had taken 15 years from the time he first applied — when he dropped out of high school — to get an offer of employment.

Since 1998, he had worked seven days a week, often 12 hours a day at the plant, racking up overtime pay. He bought a house on nine acres of land with a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and he helped support his grown son and other relatives.

In the spring of 2015, in a burst of anger, he went to another manager, and then another, and told them what was happening, spilling details about the sexual harassment he said he had endured as well as some procedural violations he said he had witnessed.

The following February, Funk also reported the sexual harassment to the EEOC. By then, he had hired a lawyer.

The company, in the response to Funk’s allegations that it sent to the EEOC, requested that the charges be dismissed, in part because it took “prompt action” to investigate and respond to Funk’s allegations.

The company’s response to the EEOC cited its internal investigation, which found that there was an “inordinate amount of horseplay and profanity” used in the area and that Funk had participated in it, too, including taking part in sexually explicit discussions. The investigation found that Funk’s supervisor knew about the harassing behavior and had done nothing to respond, the report said.

According to the response, Funk’s supervisor and the co-worker he had accused of harassment — along with another co-worker — were terminated or retired in place of termination shortly after the internal investigation. Also, in part as a result of Funk’s allegations, the company “accelerated” sexual harassment training that officials said was already scheduled to take place later in the year for employees, the response said.

The internal investigation did not find evidence of a later incident of sexual harassment that Funk also alleged, involving another co-worker, according to the response. It also said that Funk failed to report that incident to the company in a timely way.

The EEOC closed its investigation but sent Funk a letter notifying him of his right to sue.

Two years later, the case is still pending. An effort to reach a settlement agreement through mediation early this year was unsuccessful and the case is scheduled to go to trial in the fall, said Williams, Funk’s attorney.

As he has for nearly two decades, Funk still wakes up in the middle of the night and leaves for work well before dawn, he said.

He still has his job. His schedule and pay did not change after the incident, but Funk says many employees at the plant view him with suspicion for getting his co-workers fired. They call him a “snitch” and a “whistleblower.”

The summer after he reported the misconduct, Funk said he went through what he recalls as the first-ever sexual harassment prevention training at work.

The training prompted jeers and jokes from some on the staff. But Funk said the training was eye-opening for him. It spelled out a much higher standard of behavior at work than what he said he had experienced.

He was used to people cursing and telling dirty jokes at work, and he agrees that he joined in. “It’s the environment that you’re in,” he said.

But he believes that some people took it too far.

“When a guy says stop, that means stop,” he said.