Rutgers hopes workshops shine light on sex harassment

By Anjalee Khemlani
New Brunswick | Dec 5, 2017 at 7:00 am

Included in the numerous reasons why women do not report sexual harassment in the workplace is this gem: They may not truly know what is and what isn’t harassment.

That’s the opinion of Debbie Hines, a longtime corporate consultant in human resource management, and a part-time lecturer on workplace issues at Rutgers University.

“A lot of times, individuals don’t know what harassment is in the workplace, or, if they do know, it’s after the fact,” Hines said.

And it’s just one of the reasons why Hines and Rutgers professor James Cooney will host two workshops, sponsored by the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.

The first, Countering and Preventing Sexual Harassment, will focus on prevention and support, will be held this Friday, Dec. 8.

The workshop will include information on what happens if you are a victim: What you should do, and what resources are available. It also will talk about what you should do if you learn about a co-worker being harassed.

The second, Investigating Sexual Harassment, will be held Jan. 26.

That workshop will discuss when a complaint can be a criminal charge, as well as the basics of sexual harassment investigation.

Both will be held at the Labor Education Center in New Brunswick.

Rutgers officials said the workshops were inspired by the #MeToo hashtag campaign, which has shown just how pervasive the issue is in the workplace.

“When people in authority use the power of their position to force others to do things they don’t want to do, we all suffer,” said professor Michael Merrill, director of the Labor Education Action Research Network at the school.

“Learning to counter and prevent sexual harassment is an obligation each of us needs to assume. The brave women and men who have spoken out in recent weeks deserve our thanks and our support.”

Cooney also has served as an arbitrator and attorney who has represented plaintiffs in sexual harassment cases.

Cooney said that, in his more than 20 years hearing cases, he continues to see trends of improper investigations, or policies that are not properly implemented.

“It will vary by organization,” he said. “I’ve seen times where HR sides with management right on the spot.”

If employers follow laws and liability concerns properly, and have a very clear zero-tolerance policy that all employees have copies of — including the complaint procedure — many of the cases could be avoided.

But management isn’t always clearly defined.

There are instances, especially in smaller companies or those with a tight-knit management group, when HR fails the employee.

“I would ask my client, ‘Well, did you report this to HR?’ and they would look at me like, ‘Did you just land from Mars?’ (because) the HR person is a golfing buddy of the president,” Cooney said.

This is one of the key issues that Hines hopes to address: the fear of filing a complaint and the lack of support within organizations.

“Even by hearing it on the news, you have what’s going on — other individuals may have been victims, and it may not be until they hear it again that they think, ‘Oh, it happened to me,’” Hines said.

And those who have stayed silent may have done so out of fear of retaliation or not knowing what the consequences are, or even who to go to, Hines said.

This is why the workshop can help, she said. Not only does it offer a place of education and awareness, it’s a place of support.

“When you do a webinar or sign up for a tutorial, it’s not the same thing,” Hines said. “(In the workshop), they are getting hands-on about hypotheticals and how to handle situations.”

Historically and statistically, the issues aren’t new, but the level of attention has varied, Hines said.

“When you hear of organizations that have issues with sexual harassment, just like with any other social issue — the smaller incidents don’t get large coverage,” Hines said.

But, both she and Cooney hope that the combination of current attention and the workshops geared to businesses can help those who don’t have the help of the media.

They both said they know the list of victims is extensive.

“It’s in the news now once again,” Cooney said. “It rears its head periodically. But it’s been going on forever.”

Anjalee Khemlani | akhemlani@roi-nj.com | AnjKhem