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Manage Sex Discrimination Risks: A Case Study

Manage Sex Discrimination Risks: A Case Study
So we have the legal definition of sexual harassment, but let’s take a look in an actual case scenario which illustrates the kind of challenges that companies face in applying the law. So here are the facts. And this is drawn from an article in the Harvard Business Review called The Case of the Mismanaged Miss. We’ve got a company that selects a male applicant over a female applicant for a marketing director position. Both male and female are equally qualified. The company uses and old boy network in finding candidates and in recommending candidates, they don’t use open job postings.
The only reason why the female candidate learned about the position was that she had a friend in the old boy network who told her about it. Senior executives in this company are all male, there are no female senior executives. And very few female individuals even at the middle management level. The vice president, who made the promotion decision was this woman’s boss. And he has an attitude where he believes that women should be in soft positions like HR in a company. This vice president treats her differently on a personal level from male employees. For instance, he often comments on her dress, on her hair, on the color of her eyes.
In this company, the sales representatives that this woman works with have one of those so-called locker room calendars that have pictures of nude women hanging in the office. So, let’s assume that this woman files a sexual discrimination case or sexual harassment case against the company.
How do you think the jury would decide this case? If you were sitting on this jury, do you think that this company has violated the laws against sex discrimination? Please hit pause and write down your answer, but in writing down your answer, a second question. If you were a manager in this company, if you were a leader in this company, what changes would you make in the company? So two things. Do you think that this conduct violates the law against sex discrimination, sexual harassment? And second, as a leader in the company, what changes would you make?
I ask this question to students in my class, including my programs for senior executives. And almost unanimously, not entirely, maybe it’s 95% of the class said, clearly this is sex discrimination against this woman and they would award damages. If they were hired as a leader of the company, what changes would they make? They usually come up with these types of changes. First of all, this company needs a strong policy that includes specific examples of prohibited actions. Second, this company needs a grievance procedure so the employees with complaints have alternative ways to voice the complains. For example In some companies, if you want to complain, you have to go to your boss.
Well, that is difficult in a situation like this, because the boss was one of the big problems here. The boss had a discriminatory attitude. And so, employees should have alternative avenues to voice their complaints. They should be able to go to one of their peers, for example, or to HR. Third they recommend a job posting procedure instead of relying on the old boy network. And finally and this is a very strong recommendation. The company should develop a program to continually educate employees about sex discrimination and other forms of discrimination. So let’s assume that you
decide to follow through with these actions and specifically the recommendation to educate employees. So you schedule a session with employees that you are leading. And one of the questions that employees ask is, what about the locker room calendar in the office? Is that okay, the calendar that has nude pictures on it? How would you answer that question? What would you tell the employees if during the educational session they ask you about the calendar? Well, when I ask the executives, they say the calendar has to go. Okay, but what if it wasn’t the locker room calendar? What if it was one of the most famous paintings in the world, let’s say a Renaissance painting by one of the master painters?
And it was a painting of a nude. Would you allow this classic painting to hang in the office?
What if it was a picture of a family, of an employee’s family on the beach wearing swimming suits? Will that picture be allowed?
What if your employee has a picture of her husband in the office and he’s wearing a speedo? Would that picture be allowed? Those are the kind of questions that you should be prepared to ask during an educational session. And what if an employee asks you during this educational session hey, can I make comments about somebody’s dress? If I’m a male for instance, can I say to a female employee, that’s a pretty dress you are wearing. I like your hairstyle. Your dress brings out the color of your eyes. And how would you answer that question as a leader of the company? What would you tell that employee? Can the employee make comments about somebody’s dress, hair, eyes, etc?
Now, these are tough questions to ask especially the questions about the comments. And think about, and sometimes there are no clear right or wrong answers, but think about them in this context. There are some situations where people around the world would agree that there has been clear harassment, for example, where there’s unwanted touching or assault of an employee. No question, those cases are easy.
The problems arise with the cases that are unclear. Where there are, for instance, comments about somebody’s appearance. Let’s say a male boss makes these comments to a female working for him. Look at the three possibilities of what might happen in this situation. Number one, the employee who’s offended by these comments might say nothing and just smolder. And that’s not a good situation. That creates a very uneasy situation. Number two, and this is the best possibility, where the person says to you the boss hey, your comments make me feel very uncomfortable. So now you can address this situation, you can change your behavior.
In the third possibility, and this is most brutal possibility is where the employee decides to go to a lawyer or go to HR and have you written up for the comments you make. So how can you address this situation especially in the areas that are gray? Where it is unclear whether the comments are discriminatory. Whether they represent harassment or not. Well, some people recommend taking a golden rule approach. The golden rule is part of every major religion in the world. I don’t know if you are familiar with the golden rule. It says do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Treat others as you would want to be treated.
Now that might work in some context, but there’s a problem in area of sexual harassment. And the problem is this, from an article in The New Yorker. This is just one example, various research teams has conducted a simple study. They hire woman to go to college men and ask them to sleep with her. More than half of the men say okay. Then they have a man approach college women with the same offer, virtually no woman would say yes. So I think you can immediately see the problem with the golden rule, treat others as you would want to be treated problem if you’re a man. So a better approach is probably something called the platinum rule.
Treat others as they would want to be treated. And whenever you’re dealing with these borderline situations, remember the fundamental differences between the attitudes of women and men when you think in terms of the platinum rule. So that concludes our look at how you can try to manage risks related to sex discrimination and we’re now going to turn next to approaches that take you to the balcony that give you a broader perspective on the issues that we’ve been addressing so far.
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