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The Call-In: Workplace Sexual Harassment


This is the Call-In. Every day seems to bring more accusations of sexual harassment and assault against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. We wanted to hear your stories about harassment in the workplace.

BARBARA JAPIDEN: My name is Barbara Japiden (ph).

CHRIS ALMACK: Hi. This is Chris Almack.

ROMELLO WILLIAMS: My name is Romello Williams (ph) from Buffalo, N.Y.

ALMACK: I'm calling about my workplace unsuccessfully dealing with sexual harassment.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I was a reporter at a small newspaper. I was harassed by my editor.

JAPIDEN: One of my faculty members was harassing the female students. When I called him on it, my contract was terminated.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I wish that I'd come forward and spoken up. At least another woman might not have been grabbed if I'd spoken up on my own.

ALMACK: Thanks.


JAPIDEN: Thank you.


BLOCK: We're going to hear now from another caller, a young woman who asked us not to use her name for fear of professional retribution.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I am in my first year of graduate school in a clinical psychology program.

BLOCK: But about a year and a half ago she was working as a clinical research coordinator at a hospital. The incident she called in about wasn't an assault. On the spectrum of sexual harassment, it wasn't at the high end. But it made her really uncomfortable.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: What happened was a cleaning staff member said a derogatory comment to me in Spanish. And because I am an Asian-American woman, I don't think he expected me to understand what comment he had made.

BLOCK: Do you mind telling us what it was that he said?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Oh no. He said that I had a great ass. It was just strange to hear in a workplace environment. And it immediately made me very self-conscious of what I was wearing and kind of just the ways that I carried myself.

BLOCK: Did you say anything to him in English or in Spanish.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Well, I was holding a fork, so I kind of shook it at him (laughter). I was like, hey. And then I just walked away.

BLOCK: She told a coworker and her lab manager about it but decided she didn't want to pursue a complaint with HR. She explains it this way. Her job at the hospital was short-term, a stop on the way to graduate school. But for the custodian, that job was probably his livelihood. She didn't want him to lose his job.

So you decided not to report it. But, ultimately, it did end up with HR, right?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah. So my coworker and I came in the next day only to find out that the lab manager had already reported it to HR.

BLOCK: And what did you think about that?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I felt betrayed. I had newly started at this job, and she looped my boss in, as well. So things that were at stake for me when I found that out were, you know, I'm a new employee here. I'm hoping to get a stellar recommendation to start my career as a potential future psychologist. And now my boss knows. And what implications might that have for any future career goals?

BLOCK: She had to talk to HR, but they determined that since it was a first offense, the custodian would only get a warning.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: But what happened was a few weeks later, I had noticed that he was on my floor specifically, right outside our office every day instead of three times a week.

BLOCK: Wow. So he was there more than he had been before.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah. And so my perception of it, even though I doubt that this is what went into it - but my perception was like, oh, this feels punitive just for reporting something (laughter).

BLOCK: Punitive to you, not to him.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah. And so that was a bummer because I was there for the next year and a half. And it changed the way that I trusted the system. And it changed the way that - you know, if I saw him cleaning outside, I would just go all the way around to a different floor and use the bathroom there or, you know, just walk different halls.

BLOCK: So you changed your behavior because he was around more often.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I did. So the specific outfit I was wearing was, like, a knee-length dress with a cardigan and tights and boots. I just never wore that again. And I didn't wear any form-fitting clothes after that.

BLOCK: You never wore it again to work because he had commented about you in it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah. And I guess where I'm coming from is, like, OK, if the system isn't going to help me, what can I do to help myself? And this is what I have control over - is how I dress and ways in which I present myself.

BLOCK: She says the whole experience left her with lingering questions about how harassment claims are handled at work.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I guess it's like, oh, so if it was his second time, would you have done that. Does it take his third time? Does he have to grab me? Or does something bigger have to happen? Like, when you start setting these scales and these thresholds, I think it gets really tricky in terms of understanding what actions to take.

BLOCK: You work in a different place now. If you were to be the target of sexual harassment in the workplace, do you think you would feel comfortable reporting it now?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Honestly, no (laughter)...

BLOCK: Really?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: ...Which is a shame. But I feel like here, things are even more high stakes. If we think about what happened back at my old institution, that was a cleaning service worker. Thinking of the people here, it's, like, foremost researchers in the fields I want to be in. It's professors. It's people who have a lot of power. If anything were to happen here, I wouldn't feel safe to report anything unless I could assure my own career safety, I guess.

BLOCK: Well, that's a real bind, isn't it?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah. Yeah. And it's really tough to kind of confront the systems within which we work right now.

CHAI FELDBLUM: Seventy percent of employees who experience harassment in the workplace never even report internally. They never even go to a supervisor.

BLOCK: Chai Feldblum is a commissioner at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She listened to the conversation we just heard and says that's typical. Most people don't want to report harassment because they're afraid of retaliation. And not without reason.

FELDBLUM: Based on the research, people who did report - almost 50 percent of them experienced some form of retaliation. That's horrific. If, in a workplace, other employees see that someone who complained was retaliated against, that is a sure-fire way to make sure that others will not report.

BLOCK: If you think about the the culture that allows sexual harassment to flourish, do you, stepping back, think that that culture can be changed?

FELDBLUM: I have to believe that culture can be changed because that's the reason I get up in the morning...

BLOCK: (Laughter).

FELDBLUM: ...And try to do this work.

BLOCK: Yeah.

FELDBLUM: So the first step is what's happening right now, getting out to listeners that this is a problem, and they don't have to suffer this. But then we have to change the culture. Anyone who thinks changing the culture is easy has never tried to change culture.

BLOCK: So given how difficult a challenge that is, what are steps that employers could take to try to change the culture.

FELDBLUM: The first is leadership. It's actually telling employees, we do not tolerate harassment in this workplace - and then having employees believe what they say. Leaders say a lot of things. It's about demonstrating authenticity. And you demonstrate authenticity by your actions - having a good policy, having an investigation system that takes people seriously, holding people accountable. The harassers - holding them accountable. Their managers and supervisors who hear about harassment - holding them accountable if they didn't respond appropriately.

BLOCK: What about if it's a company that doesn't have a traditional HR department, might not be bringing in the sexual harassment trainers? Maybe it's a small business or a restaurant or a farm with seasonal workers. How do you handle that?

FELDBLUM: That's why it's so important for employers to know that individual supervisors - first-line supervisors - need to be trained about what to do. Our training tries to convey that supervisors should see a complaint as a gift. A supervisor is going to have a tendency when he or she hears a complaint of harassment to say, oh, no, I can't believe I have to deal with this. Instead, they have to realize that this gives them a chance to stop something before it gets worse.

BLOCK: When you think about the conversation happening now because of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, as painful as these stories have been to hear and to read, is there - are you seeing a silver lining in that this conversation is happening now, and there is much more scrutiny now being drawn to this issue?

FELDBLUM: People have often asked me whether I think this is a tipping point. And I say we need two tipping points. The first tipping point is coming out about the issue and making people feel a sense of urgency in fixing it. The second tipping point is getting the majority of employers putting in place strategically ways to change their workplace culture and then doing something about it collectively.

BLOCK: Chai Feldblum is commissioner with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Thanks so much for coming in.

FELDBLUM: It's been a delight. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.