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Sexual harassment is in the news again; this isn’t anything new

April 11th, 2017  |  Joy Waltemath

Since the New York Times wrote April 1 about Fox News’ reported payments of $13 million in response to women’s complaints about Bill O’Reilly’s alleged behavior, with President Donald J. Trump himself weighing in during a later New York Times interview, saying “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong,” articles about sexual harassment have become inescapable.

In fact, there hasn’t been this much news about sexual harassment since former Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes left that organization after a reported $20 million settlement of sexual harassment claims brought by its former anchor Gretchen Carlson. That was six months ago. Approximately a month later (that would be five months ago), the Donald Trump/Billy Bush recording story broke about their “extremely lewd conversation about women” that took place in 2005. Just last month we learned about the Marine Corps and a private Facebook group called Marines United where naked photos of female marines were posted without their consent. It’s not like sexual harassment is out of the news for very long.

Averaging about one article every business day. We at Employment Law Daily are not surprised. Neither, I suspect, are you. Over the past five years of reporting employment law case analyses, Employment Law Daily has reported an average of approximately 244 articles per year involving sexual harassment. That is the equivalent of almost one article for every business day we publish, and that number has been pretty steady year over year. It looks like it is on track to continue in 2017; during the first quarter we have reported 64 articles involving sexual harassment.

At the EEOC too. EEOC charge statistics for sexual harassment haven’t varied that much since 2012, although they are down some: From 7571 charges filed in 2012, dropping to 7,256 in 2013, 6,862 in 2014, 6,822 in 2015, and 6,758 in 2016. Monetary benefits obtained, according to the EEOC, for sexual harassment claims run pretty steady: $43.0M in 2012; $44.6M in 2013; big drop to $35.0M in 2014; back up to $46.0M in 2015; and dropping again to $40.7M in 2016.

So what’s the point? The point is, simply, that we have chosen to tolerate some level of sexual harassment. It has a cost, in dollars and resources expended, as well as in lives and reputations compromised, but we act as though that is an acceptable cost of doing business—a societal norm, a level of which we expect and tolerate. In contrast, consider the impact that Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has had in the modification of social norms involving intoxicated driving, moving the public perception from a characterization of “drunk driving accidents” to “crashes caused by criminal negligence,” as a 2005 article in World Psychiatry suggested.

What will it take to move the needle on sexual harassment?  Is the issue lacking a grassroots organization—say, a “Mothers Against Sexual Harassment”—to lead the charge? More of the same anti-harassment training that has been used in the past does not seem to be the answer. Reports from June 2016 posit that “the type of anti-harassment training that has been done to date … is not as effective in actually changing behaviors,” according to Chai Feldblum, EEOC commissioner and co-author of the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace.

The grandparent rule. Maybe another approach is warranted. A college friend who now has a medical practice instructs his employees to treat every patient like they would want their grandparent to be treated; perhaps that is the standard we could adopt for treating others in the workplace as well.