In the current political forum and corporate world, sexual harassment has become a heated issue. The federal courts of the United States have addressed the pressing issue of this violation and are forcing corporations to assume responsibility for the actions of their employees by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. In Code 29 of the Code of Federal Regulation, it states that in cases involving employees,
An employer may be responsible for the acts of employees, with respect to sexual harassment of employees in the workplace, where the employer, its agents, or supervisory employees knows, or should have known, of the conduct and fails to take appropriate corrective action. In reviewing these cases, the Commission will consider the extent of the employer’s control and any other legal responsibility, which the employer may have with respect to the conduct of such non-employees. (O’Donohue, 1997, p. 43)
Harassment in the workplace causes hostility and tension. These attributes are not conducive to a worker-friendly atmosphere. According to research by the American Psychological Association, “Many women who have been harassed on the job report a cornucopia of symptoms similar to other forms of severe stress” (Petrocelli, 1997, p.87). These include problems ranging from depression, insecurity, and lethargy to headaches and decreased job satisfaction and productivity. Therefore, employers must prevent and enforce “sexual harassment” so that they will be better able to prevent further instances of the offense. Its occurrence decreases productivity and warrants unnecessary debt.
What is sexual harassment?
The ambiguity of words allows for many interpretations of “sexual harassment”, but the United States Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) defines sexual harassment in the 29th Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) #1604.11(a) when:
1. Conduct and/or comments are understood to be sexual in nature
3. Such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment. (MacKinnon, 1990, pp. 67-68)
Defining “sexual in nature”
“Sexual harassment encompasses a wide range of conduct, from offensive sexual innuendoes all the way to borderline cases of rape” (MacKinnon, 1990, p.92). It is hard for the courts to draw the fine line where actions become offensive and sexual in nature. Such conduct, however, needs not be restricted to any physical harassment. Verbal assaults and visual degradation also carry substance in the definition of sexual harassment (O’Donohue, 1997).
Verbal sexual harassment includes crude sexual jokes, sexual requests or favors, and references to the physical attributes of the victim. If these assaults are unwarranted and unwanted, they constitute sexual harassment. Harassment can be any derogatory action or comment (Petrocelli, 1997).
Another offense that can be included into the realm of sexual harassment is visual insult. Any pictures, gestures, or looks that are sexually explicit fall into this category. Written notes or letters to a colleague with sexual content or nature also constitute a violation of the 29th code of the Code of Federal Regulations imposed by the EEOC. (MacKinnon, 1990)
“Hostile working environment” vs. “quid pro quo” demand
When cases of sexual harassment first appeared in the courts, only cases of quid pro quo were recognized. These instances of the offense threaten the employment of the victim if they are unwilling to submit to sexual requests. This type of harassment usually occurs when the offender is in a superior position than that of the victim. “Almost 2/3 of sexual harassment complaints were brought against a woman’s immediate supervisor or another person with greater power” (Petrocelli, 1997, p.121). The harasser explicitly explains or implies that refusal of compliance will result in job-loss. This request need not be sexual intercourse.
A more recent recognition of sexual harassment is those cases causing a hostile working environment. While it can be associated with quid pro quo offenses, it stands alone as a justifiable claim. In this type of harassment, the conduct is so severe or pervasive that it changes the very conditions of employment, making the work environment hostile. For example, an employee arrives at work one morning to find that someone has left suggestive literature on her desk. If this behavior occurs for a prolonged period, the harasser has created a hostile working environment.
Why employers should not accept responsibility
Those critics, many of whom are employers, that feel they should not bear the burden of their employees’ actions will say that it is the responsibility of the worker to act maturely in the workplace. If employers are not personally responsible for the harassment, why should they have to suffer as well?
An employer may be the supervisor of his or her employees, but how would it be possible to oversee every action, word, and gesture communicated among employees? The responsibility of employees’ actions is their own. Each worker is a mature adult, expected to behave properly.
Why employers must assume responsibility
Should a whole corporation suffer for the careless actions of one employee? Yes. The most obvious reason for companies to assume responsibility for the actions of their employees is that they are legally required to do so. No one is above the law. Just as parents must care for their children, corporations must also hold the best interests of their employees in mind and in policy.
In addition to this legal obligation, sexual harassment decreases revenue. By both lowering productivity and producing expenses, sexual harassment is a burden to businesses. Even if the offense is settled informally, the harasser took time away from work to commit the crime. According the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, “Sexual harassment costs a typical Fortune 500 company $6.7 million per year in absenteeism, low productivity, and employee turnover” (MacKinnon, 1990, p.27). Therefore, his or her efficiency is affected.
Court actions follow any situation that cannot be informally resolved. “Mitsubishi Motors Manufacturing recently agreed to pay $34 million to women who worked at its plant in Normal, Illinois for failing to step in and stop the widespread sexual harassment they endured for years at the company” (Petrocelli, 1997, p.96). That is an unnecessary debt to accept as a result of negligence.
Employers cannot avoid the issue of sexual harassment. They must take the proper steps in helping to prevent any further abuse of power in the sexual context. Time and money are not expendable commodities in the corporate forum. If businesses wish to continue to thrive they must face up to reality and address the issue of sexual harassment. Women are not able to work in a good environment and thus it affects their productivity. Less productivity equals less revenue, and that is certainly something corporations cannot deal with.
With corporations such as Mitsubishi suffering extreme debts, the Chairman of the EEOC, Paul M. Igasaki, gives warning to all other businesses. “Other companies should take heed . . . The key to success in this area is having a credible policy which takes decisive, fair, and timely corrective action long before a situation gets out of hand” (O’Donohue, 1997, p. 47).