Articles‎ > ‎Gender Issues‎ > ‎

A New Era in Sexual Harassment

By: Mauricio Velasquez

Training Specialist, Diversity Training Group

There has emerged a need to redefine sexual harassment in the 1990's, stemming from an increase in complaints from men and homosexuals.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the number of sexual harassment complaints filed by men has more than tripled from 481 in 1991 to 1,500 in 1994, while total yearly complaints doubled to 14,420. 

A retail establishment recently was forced to pay $1 million to a victim of homosexual harassment, largely because the victim's employer failed to take the case seriously. Sexual harassment is broadening to include harassment of men by women, homosexual harassment and even more recently, incidents involving harassment of workers by customers or clientele, commonly known as third-party harassment. Companies would be wise not to laugh and do nothing in the face of these new and unforeseen complaints.

Third party harassment is committed by clients, customers or vendors. This type of harassment is particularly difficult to prosecute in part because there lies a gaping hole in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law is interpreted to apply only to "employees," clearly excluding self-employed individuals. This leaves those victims in professional services such as law, accounting, medicine and consulting with no legal recourse. Furthermore, the EEOC has been known to investigate and prosecute third party cases under anti-discrimination laws but fails to track the actual statistics. Therefore, it is difficult to estimate how often harassment occurs. However, in a survey by Klien Associates,19% of 2,000 attorneys reported that they have received unwanted sexual attention. And a study conducted by the New England Journal of Medicine in Ontario found that 77% of female family physicians reported sexual harassment by their patients.

How does a company or practitioner respond to these allegations without losing business? Traditionally, when approached with a third party sexual harassment complaint, businesses are primarily concerned with significant financial consequences; losing the account and possibly losing other clients that the accused may be associated with. For these reasons, along with a fear of being blamed and/or having their careers destroyed, few victims are speaking out. The client is the "economic engine" that drives the machine. Going up against a client company is asking for career suicide.

These fears subside when employees see an executive take appropriate action. Upper management must investigate and respond quickly to complaints--every complaint. They must take measures to protect the victim. To do this, the victim must be consulted as to what action they wish to take. Usually the action will involve a public intervention and the company will be asked to drop the account. This can be very successful if the victim's supervisor maintains a high value and moral system within the company. It is a short-term financial sacrifice for the business, but one that will enhance loyalty and commitment of its employees. This, in turn, will make a positive impression on other new prospective clients. If the victim cannot depend on their company to help defend them, they will be inclined to file a law suit under antidiscrimination laws which, in the end, may result in financial loss, lowered productivity and loyalties and an earned reputation as a company that doesn't care about its people. As a precautionary measure, management must install and enforce official rules norms and customs and implement them into the contracts drawn between negotiating companies. They are responsible for setting an example to their workers and their colleagues.

The most prominent of the new age complaints are those cases involving men harassed by female supervisors. According to the EEOC, men represent 10% of all sexual harassment cases and the numbers are steadily rising. In most harassment cases, whether the assailant be male or female, the main motive is not romance but power. Today, women hold 15% of all managerial and supervisory positions and are now more then ever inclined to play the power game. However, females tend to differ from males in their demands. When a male falls victim to harassment by a female, more than 50% of the cases allege a demand for sex - Quid Pro Quo - in order to retain a job or receive a promotion. By contrast, Quid Pro Quo is only evident in 15% of female victims cases. The main dilemma a man faces when he is harassed by a woman is that he is more inclined to be embarrassed and is reluctant to speak out for fear that he will be humiliated and ostracized by his coworkers. Male victim cases can sometimes present problems due to society's stereotypes of women and men. Our mental models maintain the assumption that males find sexual advances from women nonthreatening and even enjoyable.

We must take all complaints seriously or we will lose creditability. Procedures for dealing with harassment cases should be consistent, regardless of gender or status. However, companies should still take into account the victim's personality and the circumstances. They should treat every complaint confidentially, investigate each thoroughly and take appropriate and immediate disciplinary action.


bulletSuggestive remarks
bulletTeasing or taunting of a sexual nature
bulletUnwelcome physical conduct or sexual advances
bulletContinual use of offensive language
bulletSexual bantering
bulletBragging about sexual prowess
bulletOffice or locker room pin-ups
bulletCompliments with sexual overtones

Companies should not tolerate such behavior from their staff or management at any time and will suffer grave consequences if they choose to ignore complaints and take no action to stop the behaviors.