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Harassment Hits Higher Profile

From the White House to Wall Street, sexual harassment captures headlines lately, but the publicity belies the progress in this critical workplace issue.

President Clinton's alleged affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones's sexual-harassment lawsuit against him are the latest incidents in the spotlight. Wall Street also has been rocked by recent sexual-harassment suits.

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And nationwide, the number of women - and men - charging sexual harassment on the job is way up. Complaints filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) more than doubled between 1991 and 1997.

Yet despite the numbers, employment lawyers and corporate consultants say sexual harassment in the workplace is probably declining.

They cite two reasons: Women are more emboldened to report improper propositioning, and employers are more vigilant in following up, especially in the face of costly lawsuits.

"I don't think we are seeing greater incidence of sexual harassment in the workplace," says Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center in Washington.

"Rather," she says, "the increasing complaints are due to a greater awareness of the problem and less of a willingness on the part of women to tolerate harassment."

And then there's the money. While complaints have doubled between 1991 and '97, monetary awards multiplied sixfold to $49.4 million.

Legal scholars point to two defining events in 1991: the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, in which Ms. Hill accused her former boss of sexual misconduct, and a new federal law allowing victims of sexual harassment to seek monetary damages.

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But whatever the numbers, sexual harassment remains a stubborn - and high-profile - part of the workplace.

Last month, in the largest sexual-harassment settlement, Astra USA, the American wing of a Swedish drug company, agreed to pay $10 million to end a lawsuit alleging that women employees were asked for sexual favors in exchange for favorable treatment on the job.

In another case, the government is suing Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America, alleging that hundreds of female workers were groped and grabbed at its assembly plant in Normal, Ill.

Although there is widespread agreement that sexual harassment is wrong, its definition is not always clear-cut (see story, right).

Nothing about the Lewinsky case, for example, suggests it could involve sexual harassment.

Rather, sexual harassment occurs when a person's job, pay raises, or promotions depend on sexual demands.

Harassment can also occur when such demands unreasonably impede a person's job performance or create an intimidating or offensive work environment.

That still leaves a lot of gray area, and the Supreme Court this term will hear four harassment cases that may help clarify some legal issues.

Perhaps most important, legal scholars say, is Burlington Industries v. Ellerth, which tests whether a worker can sue for harassment if her boss made advances toward her as a condition of employment, even if she rejected him and was still promoted.

But "the real work is not in the courts" but on the job, says Peter Rutter, author of "Understanding and Preventing Sexual Harassment: the Complete Guide."

"We all tend to want black-and-white issues so we don't have to make judgments and think [about our actions]," adds Susan Webb, president of Seattle-based Pacific Resource Development Group.

Some argue that women may reach too far in claiming sexual harassment. "Harassment law has turned women into victims and has made a huge impact on our ability to be promoted into positions of power," says Rita Risser, a principal at Fair Measures, a Santa Cruz, Calif., firm that offers training on the issue.

"Companies are terrified absolutely terrified," she says. "They're settling for $100,000 to $150,000 on things that would never make it past an initial legal hurdle, because they don't want [a bad] reputation."

"They'll settle because what you didn't hear is that the company has had eight other complaints about Bob, and now they're thinking about getting rid of Bob," counters Ms. Webb. She sees frivolous lawsuits as the exception, not the rule.

Meanwhile, companies are busy buying insurance policies - for as much as $200,000 a year - to cover sexual-harassment and other job-related lawsuits.

Ultimately, the answer comes down to respect and education, lawyers and consultants agree.

"If an employee is going to err on the side of a more formal relationship during this period of transition," Greenberger says, "then that's a small price to pay for women being able to work unimpeded."

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