Managing Sexual Harassment

by Lee Taylor | April 30, 1991
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This is the second of two articles. The first appeared in the Winter 1991 issue.

A number of years ago, I worked for an evangelical Christian organization. We had a staff lounge where we gathered. I was one of a very few women with a position entitling me to use of the lounge, a place where ideas were exchanged and a sense of involvement in the work of the organization developed. In the more relaxed moments, I was subjected to much sexual innuendo. Comments were often made that got me all hot and bothered. I probably blushed deeply.

One day, I had on a little suit with a simple round neckline and a designer zipper all the way up the front. The zipper had a decorative ring. The men were joking about what would happen if they pulled my zipper down. While it was not obvious, I had a blouse under the suit jacket. I pulled the zipper down, while they watched in shock until they realized I did in fact have a blouse on. That was the end of the inappropriate comments. Today, in many states, this incident would very likely be grounds for a law suit, assuming I had made appropriate protests against the earlier comments.

More recently, a married male manager of another Christian organization seemed inappropriately interested in several of the women in an office. One day, a woman with some management responsibility, whom we will call Karen, inadvertently handled a situation with a second woman, whom we will call Rhoda, in such a way that it could have been read as revealing this man’s interest in Rhoda.

The manager became so angry with Karen that he grabbed her by the throat and shook her violently. He claims it was all in fun. But Karen was so upset by the incident that she required serious counseling for severe sleeplessness, depression, loss of weight and lack of concentration. The man denied any serious intent and for months the organization supported him rather than Karen.

The Manager’s Responsibility

This is not an article about the role of women in the church or in the workplace. It is about managerial responsibility to safeguard women on the job. Our laws today say that employers have that responsibility. They must ensure that women are not unfairly treated as sex objects, and that sexuality not interfere with normal work patterns and practices.

Few men are aware of how their behavior effects the women around them. What some men think of as good, clean fun may be illegal. It is illegal because of the proven damaging effects of such behavior on women, on their marriages, on their careers and on their ability to concentrated on the matter at hand – the job. As Christians, we should add that Christian men should imitate the example of Jesus Christ, honoring all women, even prostitutes, as worthy of sincere human relationships that are not of a sexual nature.

Moreover, few men are aware of the legal and publicity risk to which they expose their organization through what they consider harmless teasing and touching. While few Christian women will chose to file suit against the Christian organizations which currently or previously employed them, some women will. Some who will not do it for their personal benefit, will do it for the sake of all the women in that organization or for the sake of women in general. Some may not file suit but may leak something to the press. Men, evaluating their own actions, must take that possibility of lawsuit and publicity seriously for the sake of the ministry of their organization.

The Problem of Denial

At the first hint of a problem too managers must take a charge of sexual harassment seriously. A manager responsible for any Christian ministry must look carefully at the long-term implications of how he (or occasionally she) handles the situation. Since most women managers are more conscious of this issue, I will address this article to men who manage Christian organizations, large and small. I will use as a model a situation in a very large secular corporation, where I was the victim of sexual harassment a number of years ago. It is a company with a good program on harassment but that program had not yet penetrated to my corner of that world.

In business, women are trained to develop a straight-forward style. We must be able to walk into a room and command the kind of attention that gets the job done, not the kind that underlines our sexuality. I am a master at such a style.

In that corporation, I worked on a committee that exposed me to information on state-of-the-art technology important in my career development. The chairman of that committee asked me to meet him at a motel for the night; I said “No” in the most appropriate way possible. My manner was joking and we both laughed. So far, so good. But the next week, he asked that I be removed from the committee. Now he was using a sexual situation to impact my career.

It takes a long time for women to decide to take action in such a situation. What has happened to them is so devastating that they normally lack the will, at first, to voice the mildest complaint. Although most men’s first reaction is women make too much of these incidents, the reverse is actually the truth in 99 cases out of 100. It takes an enormous amount of courage to bring forth true and legitimate complaints. I thought about the incident for a number of days. Karen, the woman physically shaken by her manger, thought about it all weekend, then shared it hesitantly with another woman, and finally went in to complain only with the strong encouragement of her friend.

In my case, I decided to phone my manager in this secular corporation. I told him what had happened and that I felt some action should be taken. Since the chairman of the committee was very close to retirement and had an invalid wife, I was especially concerned that he not be fired, and said so. I was not intent on vengeance, but I did want to stop the abuse of power. My managers first, very bad, reaction was that the whole situation was silly, trivial and not worth pursuing. I hung up, insisting I wanted something done and that he should take it through normal managerial channels. I learned later that this was exactly the right thing to do, although I will confess that it was purely by God’s grace I did the right thing.

Several weeks went by and I heard nothing. Meanwhile I had decided to leave that corporation for totally different reasons. However, I felt I should pursue this and leave something in place for the women who stayed behind. I called my manager again and asked for a status report on the complaint. He again laughed and said he had done nothing and the whole thing was a tempest in a teapot. I again urged him to act.

My manager in the secular corporation denied the reality of the events and so did the Christian manager dealing with Karen, the badly-shaken woman.

From talking with people about Christian organizations, I understand that the level of denial of managers in Christian organizations is higher and more emotional than in secular organizations. There seems to be a feeling that “It can’t happen here”, but several kinds of sexual abuse seem to be more common in conservative Christian environments than in the population at large. The traditional role of women in the home and church creates a submissiveness on the job which limits complaint and gives men the security to pursue inappropriate and illegal behavior.

Getting Help

In my corporation, it just so happened that I had an office 4-5 doors from the most highly placed woman in the Human Resources Division (H.R.) of this massive corporation. That was a completely separate division from mine, but she and I often met in the restrooms. I asked to talk to her confidentially. We met. She listened. She told me that, in order to take it further, I needed to talk to a certain man in the H.R. Division. I wanted to make one more try with my manager before doing that. I tried with no better results. So I set an appointment with this man in H.R.

It often becomes necessary to involve someone specially trained in sexual harassment, since the manager frequently does deny the whole thing. He is embarrassed and unwilling to handle what he sees to be a sticky situation. In the unfortunate “battle of the sexes”, it puts him in a situation of having to take the opposition seriously. He may even feel a sense of betrayal of his own sex, or of the “old boys” network. The manager confronted with a sexual harassment complaint is not in an enviable position. He must offset the issues of justice to the woman against the real interpersonal values of loyalty and affection in his male network.

Managers (to whom this is written) typically have far fewer than average bonds – are (in fact) groomed to keep bonds shallow and so have only a few, usually outside work. A man with few bonds may treasure the ones he has and may need “outside” assistance. It the organization is large enough for objectivity, that can be in the personnel or human resource area. It may need to be a specialist from the field of psychological counseling or law.

In my first interview with the specialist, I found myself very reluctant to talk. I left the interview, having learned the process, but not having told my story. The man I was dealing with was not a sympathetic character, coming across as very stiff and irritable. However, it takes a tough person to deal with the managers once the story is told! A good sexual harassment officer had better be tough, even if he is harder to approach!

I do not remember now what the deciding factors were, but I remember that it took great courage finally to go back. I made two conditions. First, that the chairman of the committee be talked to, but neither fired nor demoted. Second, that my manager not be severely handled, because I believed he was acting in ignorance. The H.R. contact was surprised at my leniency, but agreed.

When I finished telling my story, he was beet-red. He had a portfolio in his hand. He stood up, slammed the portfolio down on his desk, saying, “Don’t people know you can’t get away with that in this day and age!” He was obviously very angry, and his anger brought real healing to my battered heart. Finally, I was believed!

Women involved in any abusive situation crave belief more than any other single thing. That is true in rape, in child abuse as a girl, in wife abuse. It is also true in sexual harassment.

The specialist began to investigate why my manager had failed so badly in handling the situation. He learned that my division, one of the most independent in the company, had refused to implement the training program on sexual harassment that was standard policy. My division had claimed it did not have a problem. Now, that claim no longer held water. A problem had occurred and it had been handled badly, and the H.R. division required my division immediately to implement the standard training program.

The program trains all employees on what constitutes sexual harassment, steps women should take in curbing it, how men can help women who are being treated inappropriately by other men, how to apply peer pressure, and how to file appropriate complaints. Managers had a separate session telling them how to follow appropriate procedures, what should be documented, where they can go for help, how to handle both the woman and the man, etc.

I attended the first training program in my division the week before leaving the company. In the opening remarks, the manager commented that it was a standard program required across the company and was not being held because any particular incident had occurred. I did not feel called upon to unmask the lie, but it is worth noting that the denial continued to the very end. As a Christian, I felt I had done something meaningful for justice by serving the 30,000 plus women and men of my division in this manner.

Combatting Sexual Harassment

I see four stages in dealing with sexual harassment. Early resolution of an incident is better for the woman, for the man who harassed her, and for the organization. The longer a harassment situation continues, the longer-lasting are the impacts.

First there is prevention. If a man touches a woman more than she feels is appropriate, she needs to be told how to stop his actions right there. He needs to be told that such a simple “back-off” comment may be sufficient to make any further such actions illegal. For example, a man moved to my area of the country from an area where a lot more hugging and casual cheek-kissing is the norm than is acceptable in business here. I have had to tell him firmly that I consider it inappropriate. Because he is a Christian friend and a business colleague, I was more patient than I needed to be by law and he did get the message after the fourth or fifth try. Not every woman would be so patient.

Second, managers should have some idea of how to deal with a complaint filed directly to them. If the woman gets help after her first complaint, it will save her and the company from a lot of trauma. In many situations, the man involved may simply need to be talked to and observed by his superior for a while.

The organization should insist on an apology from the man. Sometimes he will not give it. Then the organization needs to apologize on his behalf. A deep, sincere apology is tremendously healing to the woman.

If there have been even the most casual comments about the behavior of this man from more than one woman, or if the one woman complained of repeated attempts to turn aside this man’s behavior, the man may need serious psychological counseling. If he is married, his marriage is probably at risk. He almost certainly needs spiritual counseling.

In more complex situations, the woman may need immediate counseling and the manager should see that the organization covers the costs. Karen needed help and went for it, but her organization, at last report, was not helping her with those costs. This has become a major source of deep bitterness.  

Indications that counseling is needed are the very symptoms Karen displayed: lack of sleep, depression, loss of weight, inability to eat, stomach spasm, poor concentration. In the extremely rare situation where the story is an invention, such counseling will normally reveal that.

There may be times when it is appropriate to consider firing the man involved. A lawyer can advise the proper course of action, based on local criminal law and the degree of seriousness of the incident. If the man’s denial persists in the face of legal advice, he should be dealt with in the same way as any person on the staff of a Christian organization who has allegedly committed a criminal act and refused to acknowledge it.

The organization will be impacted. There may need to be a meeting with all the women to ensure their level of comfort, morale and safety. Such a meeting has several purpose. It can:

-- restore their confidence in the organization.

-- if violence was involved, state a plan for their personal safety.

-- have a time of prayer for comfort and safety.

-- state management policy and encourage the women to take appropriate measures if they feel threatened.

-- inform them on how the situation was handled to prevent rumors from circulating.

A meeting with all employees close to the incident should be held to state what the sexual harassment is, that a transgression has occurred, that action has been taken and how to prevent future occurrences.

A good closure to this stage is to have a talk with the woman. The manager should explore her degree of satisfaction with the actions taken. Even if she expresses full satisfaction, he should suggest further avenues to pursue, if she changes her mind as she thinks it over in the next few days. One suggestion should include the names of several people who could serve as neutral advocates, should she choose to enter the third stage.

The third stage is entered only on the failure of appropriate action by the first manager contacted to fully address the situation. This requires calling in an advocate, someone with experience in sexual harassment. It could be a personnel expert, a psychologist, a lawyer acting only as a mediator. It should be as non-confrontational as possible and work for change rather than punishment. The advocate may be needed for a number of reasons:

-- The woman was not believed and seeks the advocate.

-- A manager is too close to the situation to be objective. (The man accused may be a personal friend!)

-- The manager is not sufficiently knowledgeable on proper handling of the situation, so he calls an advocate.

-- The situation was serious enough to require a variety of expertise – psychology, law, personnel, etc.

The fourth, final stage is litigation. A woman usually initiates this stage with a lawyer. It is something to avoid, if possible, for the sake of every individual involved and for the sake of the organization. If she takes such action with no evidence that the complaint has been fabricated, this step usually indicates a very deep degree of personal hurt or awareness on her part of milder incidents that have been improperly handled and have been accumulating hurts among her circle of friends and colleagues.

The High Price of Denial

If there is one single rule to keep in mind when initially confronted with a complaint of sexual harassment it is this:

DO NOT DENY THE REALITY OF THE OCCURRENCE.

A complaint without some degree of reality is unlikely. It takes too much courage to file one.

A complaint without reality is statistically improbable. The odds are against a manager being right in denying a woman’s story.

A complaint handled with an attitude of denial is likely to be handled improperly. It could have serious long-term implications for the organization.

Managers of Christian organizations need to prepare themselves psychologically for an appropriate response should a woman approach them with a complaint. It is hard to respond properly if the possibility has never been considered. That response need not be totally affirming of the woman’s position at the first meeting, but it must not convey total disbelief and denial of even the possibility of a sexual harassment incident. The manager needs to have an open attitude and encourage open-ended discussion, with a phase two planned. Simply saying “This has come as a shock, I need to sleep on it, and could we get back together tomorrow at 11:00?” is enough.

Immediate, initial denial never pays. It does great harm to the woman, who is already under great stress. It destroys the morale of all the women in the organization. It may leave the man without the help he needs. It makes the organization vulnerable to adverse publicity and even legal action. It is theologically weak, since it denies the reality of sin among Christians. Denial is not the Christian response.

Note: This article is not a substitute for good personnel management and legal advice. Get someone who knows the laws in your state to define the laws for you. Get an expert in personnel who can tell you how to implement policies consistent with local laws. This article merely highlights the need for serious consideration of this issue by every Christian manager, whether in a Christian organization or not.

CBE cannot provide psychological counseling or legal advice on any specific sexual harassment case, but Lee and others do sometimes make themselves available to discuss proper managerial handling of the case, either with the woman or women harassed, the managers facing their first serious complaint, or with the woman claiming harassment by referral from her management. Lee and others provide advice that assumes a serious Christian commitment on the part of the caller. If any one of our readers wishes to receive advice about sexual harassment, contact the CBE National Office and someone will get in touch with you.

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