State’s New Year’s resolution: cut down on sexual harassment | TahoeDailyTribune.com

State’s New Year’s resolution: cut down on sexual harassment

Susan Wood

Jim Grant / Tahoe Daily Tribune / "Susana" recalls enduring a co-worker's sexual advances on the job.

A South Lake Tahoe woman thought unprovoked attention she received from a co-worker six years ago was innocent enough. The 34-year-old school counselor worked in a district office in Santa Barbara, where the man in question was a teacher.

“I’d like you to know I’m a big flirt,” the teacher told the woman whose identity will not be revealed to protect her identity. The woman will be identified in this story as “Susana.”

“I made excuses to not see it for what it was. But as I look back on it, this is why I left (my job,)” she said.

Within a year, the man’s approach escalated into comments about her looking “hot today” and having “nice legs.” She was especially uncomfortable when he declared: “I just need to know what kind of underwear you’re wearing.” Then, he’d try to hug her, asked for kisses and checked her out with his eyes.

Many workers have joked around offices when employees blow off steam and mess around. But now California isn’t laughing.

Beginning Jan. 1, companies with more than 50 employees are required to provide supervisors with at least two hours of sexual harassment training. The California Assembly mandate – AB1825, signed into law last year, includes full-, part-time and temporary-service employees as well as independent contractors associated with the company.

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Tahoe’s representatives Assemblyman Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City, and Sen. Rico Oller, R-San Andreas, voted against it.

The law is intended as a safeguard, educating managers so they’re able to spot harassment and take “all reasonable steps” to prevent it. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment affects more than 40 percent of women and 10 percent of men in the workplace.

For Susana, it was only until she warned the person who was taking over her job that she realized his advances were inappropriate and needed to be reported to the school district.

“But I just wanted out of there,” she said. “Boy, I was an idiot.”

“It got to the point when I’d avoid him at all costs. And that was hard to do when his office was two doors down from me. I’d close the door, and that’s not good for a counselor,” she said.

Sexual harassment shouldn’t be a laughing matter, said Lake Tahoe Community College instructor Virginia Boyar. The college is hosting a course for its supervisors on Dec. 9 and will make it available to the public. Ten people have signed up, and the class will accept 20. About a dozen companies fall in the category in South Lake Tahoe, including the college.

“I think (the class) will be about common sense. It’s good to be up on the regulations,” said Molly Blann, an Aspen Realty agent who signed up for the class.

The EEOC reports that an average lawsuit costs a company $250,000, without taking into account the loss of morale, productivity and replacement costs to employees unable to bear the treatment. But filing a claim costs the employee nothing. It only takes a letter to initiate the charge under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the EEOC or California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. In 2004, the EEOC reported 13,136 complaints were filed. In the prior year, $37.1 million was recovered for the charging parties.

“Sexual harassment is still alive and well in the workplace. It may look different and feel different, but there are huge financial and psychological problems with this,” Boyar said.

The first misconception she must overcome in the class is the reason for the training.

“Their perception is the fun is over, and here come the Nazis. But the focus of the training is what could get you in trouble in court,” she said.

The boundary between someone having fun or behaving inappropriately may best be answered with whether it would be OK to say if their mothers or significant others were in the room.

“Or, if it were on TV that night,” she said, adding the keys are in the tone and the eye direction of the one making the advances and comments. “It’s OK to say: ‘You look nice.’ And calling someone attractive poses a gray area. You have to look at how it’s received.”

Even though Boyer takes the problem seriously, she will try to break the ice in the class with recognizable scenarios that may strike the average manager as common-sense dos and don’ts. Here’s an example: “A male supervisor tells a female subordinate who is uptight that she needs to get (sexual gratification),” and “A female supervisor tells a male subordinate that he has a nice (butt).”

Boyar believes instances of sexual harassment can be subtle – possibly missed by young workers in their 20s before they have the self-confidence to recognize wrongdoing. Office parties at this time of year may accentuate the problem when alcohol is introduced.

“It’s more prevalent because people have no fear,” Boyar said.

Compliance is strongly urged by the California Chamber of Commerce.

“Further, the California Chamber encourages employers of all sizes in California to train their employees to help prevent sexual harassment,” President Allan Zaremberg said.