Establishing policies to fend off charges of sexual harassment in the workplace can save big bucks for banks.

That's because the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which was signed last November by President Bush, included a schedule of compensatory and punitive damages that could award as much as $300,000 to an individual complainant.

At the same time, several highly publicized events (most notably, the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings) have increased public consciousness of what sometimes happens in the workplace, what should not be tolerated in silence, and what recourse victims can seek.

Communicating a Policy

The first step a bank must take to avoid as much trouble as possible is to promulgate a policy against sexual-harassment, said Martin Payson, a partner in the New York law firm of Jackson, Lewis, Schnitzler & Krupman.

As with other such statements, the policy must come from the board and have board members' full and frequent backing, Mr. Payson said.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines state that such policies must be clearly and regularly communicated to employees.

A bank may want to define sexual harassment for its employees by giving examples, suggested Steven R. Weinstein, chairman of the labor and employment practice for Hannoch Weisman, a Roseland, N.J.-based law firm.

Examples of Harassment

The reason: Some people may not realize that comments about personal appearance and obscene jokes, for instance, can be construed as sexual harassment.

But if the company communication includes examples, Mr. Weinstein warned, a statement should also specify that the examples are noninclusive.

The policy should also outline what Mr. Payson called alternate dispute resolution, a mechanism to let the bank deal internally with such allegations and perhaps resolve them before they wind up in court.

The policy should also include:

* Designation of two high-level managers to receive such complaints. One will probably be a personnel officer, and one should be a woman, said Mr. Payson, but it won't be necessary to hire specialists. These matters should simply be placed high on the agenda of managers already in the bank hierarchy.

* Appropriate steps - including interviewing witnesses and the accused - for investigating allegations. Complainants and any others who may be interviewed in an internal investigation must be assured that any information they give will be kept confidential and that no retaliation will result.

* Affirmation that any such investigation will end in a confirmed/not confirmed finding and that appropriate disciplinary action will be taken.

However, Mr. Weinstein strongly cautioned against laying down a specific disciplinary schedule (e.g., the first dirty joke gets a verbal warning, the second gets a written warning, etc.)

Training Needed, Too

A policy against sexual harassment cannot by itself shield a bank from sexual harassment charges. Training is the real key, said Mr. Payson. And there's a lot to learn.

First, bank employees must be taught the difference between the two general categories of sexual harassment: quid pro quo, in which sexual favors are made to seem a condition of employment, and hostile environment, which EEOC guidelines define as "conduct which has the purpose or effect of interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment."

Bank managers must also learn the importance of the word "unwelcome."

What's |Unwelcome'?

There are times when it is difficult to define that word in the context of sexual harassment allegations, said Mr. Weinstein. "There mere fact that a guy tells a dirty joke is not sexual harassment, unless that conduct is unwelcome," he said.

Employees should be encouraged to speak out when some specific type of conduct is unwelcome.

There can be no question in such cases that management is aware of the situation and should act according to the guidelines established in the company's official policy.

Men, Too, Are Often Harassment Victims

While young, single, well-educated women are the most frequent targets of sexual harassment in the workplace, as many as 15% of sexual harassment allegations are made by men, according to Martin Payson of the New York law firm of Jackson, Lewis, Schnitzler & Krupman.

That incidence is great enough that researchers are able to draw as fine a profile of typical male victims as they are of their female counterparts.

On both sides of the gender gap, victims usually hold low-visibility jobs within a company. While female victims are generally between 20 and 35 years old, men remain vulnerable into their mid-40's.

Typical Conditions for Harassment of Men

The most likely male victims are divorced or separated and either work in female-dominated work groups (the norm in the typical bank retail branch) or have female supervisors, said B.D. Talley and M.L. Waller of Corporate and Government Consulting Inc., Washington.

Their book, "Sexual Harassment: What Trainers Need to Know," was recently published by the American Society of Training and Development.

Men's complaints differ greatly from those by women. The former seem so far to be centered on verbal innuendo, said Deborah Martin-Norcross, also of Jackson Lewis.

Ms. Martin-Norcross offered this example of a typical male complaint: "She said this or that to me, and I didn't get a raise or get a promotion. I think it's because I haven't been receptive."

Men Become Ready to Report Incidents

Women's complaints are much more direct, she added, and physical harassment is more often a part.

Ms. Martin-Norcross suggested that, while harassment of men in the workplace has always occurred, only now do men feel comfortable reporting it.

In the past, she speculated, many men would not have paid attention to off-color remarks made by women co-workers or supervisors. Some would simply change employers, but a tightening job market has often shut off that escape route.

And like many women, men who are or have been victims of sexual harassment at work are realizing they don't have to take it any longer.

Ms. Ferring is a senior editor in American Banker's newsletter division.

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