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The Brazen Careerist

Hurdle over sexual harassment

After a few months on the job, my cousin Allison walked into her boss's office and saw a naked woman on his computer screen. Her boss, who is also the owner of the company, closed the picture and said, "Oh, Bill sent that to me."

Bill is Allison's co-worker. In fact, Bill, Allison and the boss are the only people in the firm. It turns out that Bill and the boss trade porn all day in between doing work for clients.

Allison was not sure what is normal at the office, so she called her mom.

Her mom said, "Just ignore it. Men do that all the time."

Allison realized that she could not imagine any man she is close to trading porn at the office. So she called me, the family resource on the office place.

And I went nuts. I told her the boss undermines her ability to be part of the office culture because the office culture involves demeaning women. The office club, small as it is, excludes Allison and she'll never get inside.

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But once I calmed down I realized that her mom has a point. There is not much for Allison to do. A national survey showed that 21 percent of all women report being sexually harassed at work. A Rutgers University study showed that for workers in the knowledge-based economy, the percentage can go as high as 88 percent. It's a big problem with no big solutions. It would be useless to explain to her boss that he needs to stop looking at porn in his own, three-person office. At best she would embarrass him, but she would never change his values.

While she has a decent harassment case, Chicago-based employment lawyer Kimberly Miller says Allison won't win enough for retirement. "So she needs to consider the impact the lawsuit will have on her career," Miller advises.

The case would dominate her life for months if she's lucky and years if she's not. And I shudder to imagine Allison trying to get another job:

Interviewer: "Why did you leave your last company?"
Allison: "So I could sue my boss."

So sexual harassment persists in the workplace, even though almost every company has an explicit no-tolerance policy. The legal situation reminds me of rape laws in some Mideast countries. Sure, you can sue your brother-in-law for raping you, but after you win the trial your husband will have to kill you for embarrassing the family. Of course, he won't say he's killing you for that reason. You will just somehow fall into the burning stove.

So don't open yourself up to being thrown into the corporate burning stove. The best way to make corporate America a better place is to act when you have power. To get power, you have to stay in the workforce, not the court system, and work your way up. Unfortunately, this means learning how to navigate a boys' club. Once you work your way up the corporate ladder, you'll have a good idea of the root of the problem, and you can make some changes.

Sure, there's the rare lawsuit that makes a difference: racial discrimination at Coca-Cola, or sexual discrimination at Smith Barney. But those lawsuits were brought by employees who had achieved a high level of responsibility. Complaining is more persuasive when you have worked your way up through the system you are complaining about.

Allison's best bet is to look for another job where she will have exposure to more than two people, since these particular people will never see her as an equal in their den of porn. In the meantime, she should do good work for her company so that the boss she loathes will give her a good recommendation. That will be her first step in climbing up the ladder in order to reform the rungs.

-- Posted: Oct. 13, 2003

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