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Inclusion 2012: Harassment: Different era, clearer lines

By , - Last modified: October 1, 2012 at 9:23 AM

Workplace harassment can take many forms.

It can be a direct assault on individuals for their real or perceived differences, or requiring sexual favors and attention in order for a person to advance professionally.

It can be creating a hostile environment by repeatedly engaging in offensive conversations directed at specific co-worker groups regardless of how it affects them.

Even if the lines can be foggy at times, allowing any sort of harassment-filled environment to fester will certainly set a company back, human resources executives say.

"What happens is that good people will leave that company," said Mark A. Griffin, chief consultant for In His Name HR, a Lancaster County-based human resources company.

Management teams have come a long way in understanding what is and is not acceptable in the workplace, he said. Executive leadership is one of the most important factors in preventing hostile work environments and harassment.

"I've been in HR since 1992, and we've come so far as a country on these issues," Griffin said. "I remember a time when people were still hanging inappropriate pictures of women in the workplace."

Statistics illustrate an improving environment, even during the past seven years.

The number of reported cases of harassment, harassment by unequal treatment and sexual harassment all dropped considerably from 2005 to 2011, according to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.

Harassment based on group status, such as ethnicity, religion, sex and race, declined 27 percent, and harassment complaints based on unequal treatment of such groups dropped 41 percent.

Sexual harassment complaints declined 46 percent in the same period.

The complaints include both direct harassment of individuals and hostile work environments, said Shannon Powers, a spokeswoman for the commission. The state's civil rights agency is charged with monitoring discrimination issues and investigating complaints, as well as helping the private sector improve workplace environments.

"Just posting a notice (about discrimination law) doesn't prevent complaints or instances of harassment and discrimination," Powers said. "We would promote companies that are more proactive about it. We always advise having a diverse workplace."

Taking a long view of such issues, workplace diversity is important because it helps foster a robust economy, she said. That's because companies that get input from smart people of all backgrounds in an accepting and respectful workplace culture are generally more productive.

But that doesn't always work perfectly. As workplaces become more diverse, in some cases there are spikes in harassment and discrimination claims, Powers said. That's because people don't always understand each other's cultural differences – which can lead to friction and misunderstandings.

Also, during economic hardship such as a recession, claims can drop because people are concerned about keeping their jobs and are less likely to rock the boat even if it might be justified, she said.

Still, there's a general shift toward better workplaces, said Karen Young, president of Dauphin County-based human resources firm HR Resolutions. Her firm is doing more training and education than harassment complaint investigations.

"I'm seeing a lot more awareness, even among ownership, of these issues," Young said.

Company executives shouldn't assume their workers have been exposed to a broad spectrum of people from different religions, ethnicities, races or other cultural groups, Powers said. The commission can help companies trying to tackle these issues before they become open sores.

"We can provide cultural sensitivity training to help businesses and their employees be aware of specific behavior or ways of speaking that can be offensive to a person or group simply because maybe you haven't been exposed to that group and its culture before," she said.

It's important for employees to understand policies and prohibited behavior in the workplace, Griffin said. It's also important that companies establish an independent process in which employees who have been harassed can resolve conflicts without fear of retribution, he said.

"Legally, if you look at a lot of the cases where an employer was held liable or lost, it's often because the plaintiff's attorney was able to show (employees) had no avenue to resolve these issues," Griffin said.

Establishing that course for corrective action can be tricky, especially for smaller firms, he said. Large companies have their own HR departments that often operate independently from a facility's management, which allows the company to address problems if it's a manager creating the hostile environment.

Small and medium-size companies don't have the money to create separate HR departments, so it helps to use third-party firms.

"The owners actually like that, because it puts them at ease there's an independent avenue to address these issues," Griffin said.

Getting to that point is never as easy as it seems, particularly for small businesses that are growing, said Liz Reusswig, owner of Camp Hill-based EMR Strategies, a business development consultancy. Some executives are aware they need these policies to manage interactions between employees, but many are not.

Still, most owners want to stay within the letter of the law, as well as address the ethical issues of running a business, she said. After all, preventing problems promotes a more efficient workplace; companies just need help getting there.

Business attorneys, human resources firms and the state are good places to turn, she said.

"You're better off dealing with a problem before it happens, rather than cleaning it up later," Reusswig said.

And that's the entire point of companies establishing policies, enforcing equal treatment and preventing harassment or hostile work environments: They're more productive when there aren't needless distractions — such as harassment — from the company's core mission.

"You have people beating up on political correctness," Powers said. "But it's not about political correctness. It's about creating a more-efficient workplace and a better company."

Anti-discrimination bills founder to business detriment

It's still technically legal in Pennsylvania to discriminate against someone in the workplace for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered. And that is hurting the state's businesses and workforce, according to one LGBT group.

"Pennsylvania does a really lousy job of protecting its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens," said Ted Martin, executive director of Harrisburg-based Equality Pennsylvania.

Bills in both the state House and Senate that would bar discrimination based on a person's real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity haven't advanced since April 2011, according to the Legislature's website.

Senate Bill 910 was introduced April 6 and House Bill 300 was introduced April 28, yet both are held up in state government committees. The bills would amend the state Human Relations Act, barring discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.

The effort to bar discrimination against the LGBT community has been ongoing for more than 10 years with little progress, Martin said.

That's despite a 2011 survey of Pennsylvania voters that found about 70 percent favor such protections, according to Equality Pennsylvania. In southcentral Pennsylvania's eight counties – including Adams, Berks and Perry – 67 percent favored passage of anti-discrimination laws. The survey was conducted by Dauphin County-based Susquehanna Polling & Research Inc. and has a margin of error of 3.58 percent.

The result is workers and their families who refuse to move here, Martin said. Recently, he was contacted by an executive recruiting agency representing a gay client who was offered an executive position with a company in Central Pennsylvania. Martin said he had to tell the agency the state has no laws protecting someone from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

"(The client) turned them down and went elsewhere," he said. "This isn't an isolated incident. I've been getting more and more of these calls all the time."

Although there are no laws barring such discrimination at the state and federal level, many employers – including the state – have policies prohibiting it, said Shannon Powers, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, the state's civil rights monitor.

That's true, Martin said. Every Fortune 500 company in the state prohibits discrimination, and 28 municipalities statewide have passed nondiscrimination ordinances. It's a slow process, but people are coming to realize discrimination against LGBT workers is not only wrong but bad for business, he said.

"Our hope is that we'll continue to pass these ordinances," Martin said. "It's harder and harder for legislators to stand up and say something against passing these laws. That is pretty effective."

—Jim T. Ryan

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