Nov 12, 2007

Harassment Today: We've Come a Long Way, (Don't Call Me) Baby

1991_02.jpgWith the recent publication of his book, My Grandfather's Son, Clarence Thomas has renewed his attack on Anita Hill, the former employee who nearly derailed his 1991 ascension to the Supreme Court when she alleged he had sexually harassed her (ironically, at the EEOC). In response, Ms. Hill wrote a fiery editorial in the New York Times, pointing out inconsistencies in Justice Thomas' portrayal of her.

I'm not going to get into the middle of the debate. But I am going to thank Ms. Hill for this: we've come a long way, in large part, I believe, because of her very public "outing" of sexual harassment as a pervasive workplace problem. Reflecting on the past 16 years, here are a few highlights that I think benefit employees and employers alike:

Policies. As a matter of course, employers today have antiharassment policies in their handbooks, explaining what's prohibited and how to report harassment. This sets standards of behavior and gives the employer the opportunity to resolve workplace problems before they become lawsuits.

Training. Many employers conduct voluntary training, though few states require it (only California has a comprehensive requirement). Training gives employers the opportunity to reaffirm their polices and helps employees understand the "gray areas"--the real workplace situations--better than a policy alone does.

Affirmative Defenses. Through a line of important cases, the Supreme Court has recognized that an employer can defend itself in many harassment suits by showing it has exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct harassing behavior. This motivates employers to create preventative systems (including training and policies) and motivates employees to use those systems.

Understanding liability. Everyone knows that an employee doesn't have to suffer a "tangible employment action"--like firing or denial of a promotion--to be a victim of sexual harassment. Many definitions have been clarified for us, including what harassment is, how to measure it, and who will be held liable for it.

While sexual harassment claims at the EEOC were down overall last year, claims by males were up. Likewise, there's a growing recognition by both employees and employers that harassment can be based on more than just gender, and can include age, race, national origin, and religion. We've learned a lot so far, but we still have a long way to go.

Alayna Schroeder