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Take a stand on sexual harrassment now.

One of the most difficult and challenging problems we face as lab managers is dealing with personal conflicts between staff members. None are more agonizing and complicated than those involving sexual harassment.

Historically, most cases of sexual harassment have gone unreported. Increased numbers of women in the workplace over the last two decades, ever-strengthening laws on the subject, and the Anita HillClarence Thomas hearings might spur more victims to step forward.

* Definition. Sexual harassment is difficult to define. According to guidelines from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, unwelcomed sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when any of these occur:

* Submission to such conduct is made a term or condition of one's employment, either explicitly or implicitly.

* Submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting that person.

* Such conduct has a purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with a person's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.

Harassment takes many forms besides outright physical attacks. Subtle verbal remarks also constitute harassment but are often difficult to prove. While some might construe an employee's misdirected compliment about a colleague's appearance as playful affection, others could just as easily interpret the same actions in a different light. (For a female perspective, see "The Status of Women in the Laboratory, Part ll: Parenthood, Harassment, and Other Workplace Distractions" in the June issue of MLO.)

* Ground rules. As managers and supervisors, we are responsible for keeping the workplace harassment free. Employees must be taught what actions constitute harassment. We also must reassure employees that they will not be punished for coming forward with a complaint. People are often reluctant to bring such problems to our attention for fear of ridicule by colleagues, retribution by the harasser, being ignored, or other reasons.

No matter how hard we try to make the lab a safe environment in which to work, there are no guarantees. When a harassment case arises, I recommend that managers respond as follows.

[paragraph]Act impartially. Take no sides until the facts on both sides have been collected and weighed.

[paragraph]Act swiftly. Begin an investigation as soon as an alleged victim has come forward. Quietly question possible witnesses and study the suspected offender's past conduct. Your ultimate course of action must be determined by the facts of the case.

[paragraph]Act discreetly. The investigation must be handled as confidentially as possible. While true sexual harassment can have tragic results for the victim, it is also tragic for the reputation and career of the accused party to be compromised by unsubstantiated or false claims.

[paragraph]Treat each case as unique. In mild cases it may be sufficient to conduct a counseling session to clear up miscommunication. For more serious violations, formal disciplinary action--including termination of the harasser--may be necessary,

If appropriate, ask your facility's human resources department to recommend resources for both the perpetrator and the victim. Find out whether your institution will underwrite any charges from self-help groups or from professional counselors or therapists. Share this information with the parties involved.

* Proactive role. The best way to respond is before an incident occurs. Reducing the likelihood of sexual harassment in the lab is to our own benefit, since the responsibility for rectifying such a situation will ultimately be ours.

Make it clear--in writing, not through silence--that no form of sexual harassment will be tolerated. Ferret out personnel problems before they become entrenched. Speak to the staff Romeo and the office comedian who enjoys telling perverted jokes before their behavior gets out of hand. Your staff is waiting for you to intervene.

Perhaps most important, lead by example. We must conduct ourselves in as dignified and professional a manner as we expect of our employees. We may occasionally need to reexamine our own actions and attitudes toward the staff.

* Smoke alarm. If ignored, sexual harassment may smolder for years until the flames become visible as high turnover, low motivation, or other negative responses from employees. Demand that everyone entering your lab follow professional codes of conduct and treat all staff members with respect. And watch for smoke.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Nelson Publishing
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Viewpoint
Author:Maratea, James A.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Article Type:Column
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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