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Employment-law attorney Anne Covey on workplace sexual harassment

October 4, 2000
11 a.m. EDT

Anne Covey has practiced employment law for more than 17 years and is based in Pennington, New Jersey. She writes frequently on workplace issues -- her book, "The Workplace Law Advisor" is scheduled for a November release -- and she's an annual featured speaker at the national conference for the Society for Human Resource Management.

  MESSAGE BOARD
How far do you think the American workplace has come in terms of sexual harassment? Are you a victim of harassment at work? Do you know someone who is? What recourse is available to you and your co-workers? Do your supervisors take it seriously?
Share your experiences.

CNN Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Anne Covey, and welcome.

Anne Covey: Welcome, everyone. I'm happy to participate in this exciting and changing review of workplace sexual harassment. Any questions that we don't have the opportunity to address this morning, for more information on this important subject matter may be obtained from my upcoming book, "The Workplace Law Advisor" -- which will be available in November from Perseus Publishing. It has a whole chapter devoted to workplace sexual harassment, and may be obtained now through their Web page ( http://www.perseuspublishing.com ). For more information, you may visit my Web site ( http://www.coveylawfirm.com ).

Question from Sunny1-CNN: What constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace?

Anne Covey: There are two types of sexual harassment that have been recognized by the courts. The first type is quid-pro-quo, which means that a supervisor or manager has made sexual conduct either an express or implicit term or condition of employment -- such as a supervisor saying, "I have asked you out on dates, you've declined, you now want a pay raise. If you reconsider dating me, then I'll reconsider the pay raise." The second type of sexual harassment recognized by the courts -- and what we hear more about -- is the "hostile work environment." The hostile work environment has four basic requirements. Number one, that there's unwelcome sexual behavior that's severe or pervasive, and that creates an uncomfortable work environment.

CNN Chat Moderator: How prevalent is sexual harassment in the workplace?

Anne Covey: Based upon the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission statistics, the number of claims has continued to increase, the number of lawsuits has continued to rise -- not saying that every complaint is valid, however, we're still seeing more complaints about workplace sexual harassment.

Question from Karaoke: Anne Covey, have you ever been sexually harassed in the workplace? If so, were you immediately aware of it?

Anne Covey: My goal here is to comment on educating the public about the law, and not about my own personal experiences in the workplace.

Question from (chat participant's screen name unknown): How do future employers discover this info?

Anne Covey: Someone who has been accused of sexual harassment is placed in a most difficult situation in defending themselves if, in fact, they did not sexually harass. The best avenue in preventing a complaint of sexual harassment being filed against yourself is to be respectful to all persons at all times. As far as future employers becoming aware of a complaint of sexual harassment, most often, my advice to employers is that all information about a complaint of sexual harassment is confidential, and not to be released to anyone who is not on a "need to know" basis.

CNN Chat Moderator: What recourse is available to those who feel they're being harassed?

Anne Covey: An individual may file a complaint of sexual harassment first and foremost, with the employer, to make someone in management aware of the situation, so that an internal remedy can be provided. The objective is always to have a healthy and workable work environment. If the employer fails to take any action to cease the harassment, the employee may then file a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, their own state civil rights division, or state court. Under the recent United States Supreme Court decisions, employees have an obligation to first make the employer aware of the situation.

Question from jax: Question: In the same respect, how does an employee learn of past complaints filed against a future employer?

Anne Covey: It depends on whether the complaint was filed internally with the company, and if so, they probably will not be aware, because it's not a public record -- unless they talk with current employees to ascertain the information. Any complaints filed with a public body are considered public information. Research can be done to research the resources I just listed, as to where you may file a complaint of sexual harassment.

CNN Chat Moderator: What is the most common misconception about sexual harassment?

Anne Covey: Miscommunication and lack of understanding. Oftentimes, employees will say that they're just joking, or that they didn't intend to offend, when they're not aware of the impact of their behavior. It really comes down to learning how to work together within the workplace, and understanding the perspective of other individuals, as opposed to being so self-focused on our own.

Question from Warren: But some women make up stories to get attention, do they not?

Anne Covey: Unfortunately, that's true. There are false complaints of sexual harassment. This area of the law has been abused, similar to other facets of life, where abuses have occurred.

Question from Karaoke: When should a women report sexual harassment?

Anne Covey: She's best to make the report when she feels uncomfortable within the work environment, to make management aware of what's adversely affecting her work situation, so an expedient remedy can be provided and everyone can openly communicate how they want to be treated and respected in the workplace.

Question from Susie-CNN: What can a woman do to keep harassment from beginning?

Anne Covey: She should always be respectful to others. And if she's disrespected at any time, directly communicate that she doesn't like how she's being treated. She need not be a victim.

CNN Chat Moderator: What advice would you give people in the workplace who are worried that a compliment might be taken as harassment? What's the best way to tell where the line is so they don't cross it? What are some guidelines?

Anne Covey: I conduct management-training programs, and non-management seminars on workplace harassment throughout the country. In those programs, I provide employees a quiz. One of the questions I ask is, "If you tell a co-worker that he or she looks nice, does that constitute sexual harassment?" The unanimous word is that it does not. People still like to receive respectful compliments. I also ask whether telling a co-worker that they look attractive constitutes sexual harassment. Again, the unanimous response is that it does not. However, we look at how often the statements are being made, and the types of statements that are being made. When you increase the type of compliment, such as the employee looks "hot," you then start approaching the gray area and need to look at all of the circumstances to make a final determination.

Question from Curious: What are your suggestions about the best way to educate employees about avoiding sexual-harassment complaints?

Anne Covey: The best way to educate employees -- which has been mandated by the United States Supreme Court -- is for employers to educate all management employees. And a number of state supreme court decisions have mandated that all non-management employees be educated in workplace harassment as the Number One way to prevent workplace harassment. In conducting the education programs, the primary effective method is to have someone personally educate the employees to provide them the legal definition of sexual harassment supported by practical, everyday workplace examples of sexual harassment, and provide skits and quizzes to enlighten the employees on how this important topic does occur in the workplace -- and what action to take, should it arise. In selecting the educator of the employees, you need to ensure that the educator or presenter has impeccable credentials, and is qualified to present the program, because plaintiffs or employees' attorneys are attacking the thoroughness of the presenter and the education of the presenter in saying that the individual is not qualified, and therefore no program was offered.

CNN Chat Moderator: Most of the sexual harassment cases we hear of are women accusing men? Does the door swing both ways? Are men harassed?

Anne Covey: Yes. Over the years, the number of complaints filed by men is increasing. In 1990, only 8 percent of the complaints filed with the EEOC were by men. Last year, that number increased to 11 percent. As a result of more females holding higher positions in corporations, you may see this number continuing to increase.

CNN Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us today?

Anne Covey: The best way to prevent workplace harassment is that all employees in the workplace be trained by a qualified presenter on the topic, to always be aware of your own behavior and how it impacts upon another human being. Because the courts are continuing to expand liability in this area, and an individual may be personally liable for their own behavior, not just the employer. And if you believe you're being harassed, immediately make somebody in management aware of the situation. Management must take immediate steps to respond and investigate the complaint and, if necessary, provide a remedy to cease the harassment. One such area of expanded liability is the U.S. Supreme Court decision holding school boards liable for workplace sexual harassment and student-on-student sexual harassment.

CNN Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today

Anne Covey: I've enjoyed the opportunity to continue to educate the public on this important topic. For more information, contact Perseus Publishing at http://www.perseuspublishing.com for "The Workplace Law Advisor," and my own Web page, http://www.coveylawfirm.com. Any assistance that I may be in educating employers and employees -- so everyone understands their rights and obligations -- it would be my pleasure, to avoid workplace harassment or false claims, and provide a common understanding to everyone about this hot topic. Thank you for this opportunity.

Anne Covey joined this CNN.com/career chat via telephone from her offices in Pennington, New Jersey. CNN.com provided a typist for her. The above is an edited transcript of the chat, which took place on Wednesday, October 4, 2000.



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