Harassing Employees


WITH ALL THE DISCUSSIONS started and committees formed this semester to deal with sexual harassment of students and faculty, a large group of women which may be in worse shape is virtually ignored: Harvard employees.

There are thousands of employees, mostly women, who do the day-to-day secretarial, technical and maintenance work which keeps Harvard engaged, warm, and satiated. The biggest failing in this semester's debate has been its avoidance of the problems of employees--especially since it is in the interests of students and faculty who want stronger anti-harassment policies to join forces with women staff members.

While the sexual harassment that goes on is hard to pin down, there certainly is a problem. One out of five students at Harvard should expect some form of serious harassment--unwanted touching, pressure for dates or sexual activity--before they graduate, according to a recent survey. And the problem is probably more severe for staff than other segments of the Harvard community, Staff members depend on continued employment at Harvard for the bi-weekly paycheck that puts food on the table, and thus are certainly more reluctant to make complaints and speak than others at Harvard. Furthermore, as Linda Cooper, the sexual harassment officer at Clark University puts it, "Secretaries sometimes expect harassment, and the [buildings and grounds] staff accept it as a matter of course." Add the usual reasons women have for hesitating to make formal and informal complaints, and one can see why employees as a group are the least likely to speak out. As a result, Cooper and others believe they hear little about the harassment that goes on at schools. Ann Taylor of the Harvard General Counsel's Office says there are very few complaints of harassment made by employees. Unhappily, this is probably not due to a lack of anything to complain about.

While the problems are probably more severe for staff, they are harder to guage because the supposedly comprehensive survey did not send questionnaires to staff, only to undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty members. Moreover, the University refuses to release information on formal employee complaints. Because of a recent court ruling, Harvard has been ordered to release information about past cases (with the names whited-out) to the lawyers for Charlotte Walters, a B&G worker who has filed suit on grounds of sexual harassment. Harvard has petitioned the court to have that information remain confidential in the lawyers' hands, an agreement that Walters' lawyers refuse to make without an explicit court order.

The main problem with Harvard's sexual harassment policy is that the grievance procedures are decentralized. Not only do students and faculty follow different grievance procedures than staff, but, true to the "each tub on its own bottom" philosophy, each part of Harvard has its own mechanism for dealing with employee harassment. According to Robert J. Ginn, a personnel officer for the College who deals with harassment complaints, the College tries to keep open as many doorways as possible to an employee with a concern. But what Ginn and others should realize is that sometimes there are too many doorways.

TO UNDERSTAND why this is a problem, one should look at what has happened at other universities, since many have had similar cases and debates to those at Harvard. Several years ago in a well publicized case at Clark, two faculty members, an undergraduate, a graduate student, and a staff member all brought complaints against a single professor. Clark's policies were not very clear and strong at the time. One of the women who brought a complaint said that "no one really knew what was going on, there was a lot of confusion." Wendy Kaplan, who represented one of the women, recalls that it was only when the professor had brought retaliatory defamation suits against all five women did the women begin to coordinate their activities. As part of a settlement with two of the women, Clark agreed to set up an office with a full-time officer in charge of sexual harassment complaints.

There are several relevant lessons in Clark's case. It is possible for many women to have complaints against the same man; and where the policy is not simple and very clear, the cases may become confused. Also, women from all parts of the community have common interests in this issue, and one way to force a university to change is through litigation.

At Harvard an employee can talk with a supervisor, or with Ginn. or with a neutral officer in Central Personnel, or with the General Counsel's office (Ann Taylor's domain). If a worker is dissatisfied with the results she gets at these levels, she can appeal either to a formal hearing, held under the General Counsel's auspices, or to formal arbitration. A formal arbitration beard is composed of three judges--one chosen by the employee, one by the Dean of the Faculty, and one chosen from among experienced arbitrators in the graduate schools. If all else fails, as with B&G worker Walters, the employee can file suit.

This plethora of doorways means that complaints about the same man, each from a different part of the Harvard community, will follow different channels. There will be little coordination in attempts to deal with the problem.

Students and workers should not expect Harvard to deal with their problems adequately. And a decentralized policy makes it very hard to keep the system accountable. Indeed, Harvard's current policies are not as geared to being responsive and finding internal remedies as they are in avoiding public court battles which embarrass and besmirch the University. Harvard's complicated system of appeals and channels frustrates and confuses more than anything else. An employee would be so tired after pursuing internal mechanisms, and the incident might have been so far in the past (if indeed the employee is still with the University), that the isolated individual would just drop the matter. Moreover, most of the workers that Wendy Kaplan has dealt with were not aware there was an official harassment policy, and once she showed it to them, most of them could not understand it.

CLEARLY, what is needed is a simple, effective way to deal with problems. And this should not allow the possibility that employees file complaints with an official who might at another stage be defending the University.

A centralized sexual harassment policy, one with an office that students, faculty, and staff find accessible, would address the above criticisms of the current policy and procedures. In addition, it would tallow monitoring of overall patterns of harassment, and the coordination of publicity and training programs.

Litigation is the method Walters is now using against Harvard. And Harvard definitely does not want to see sexual harassment policies emerge from a court order. And even if Walters is able to get changes through litigation, the chances are that these changes would be on the order of requiring that all B&G workers, a traditionally male workforce, go through sexual harassment sensitivity training.

But there are other ways to get changes in Harvard's policies. One way is to convince the decision-makers that new ideas are worth-while. And this is best done by a broad coalition of students, faculty, and staff applying coordinated pressure on all fronts.

But how is this coordination possible given the segmentation that Harvard fosters, given that there is no union to represent staff members as a whole, and given perhaps substantial differences in socioeconomic class and self-perceptions between students and staff? Uniting people is hard but not impossible, since, as Walter's lawyer Holly Ladd puts it, "It may be easier for women to get together--there is a feeling of commonality. The same shit happens to women anytime, no matter what age or class. Sexual harassment is primarily a women's issue."

There are many ways for there to be contact between students and staff. Students do not have to wait for staff to organize themselves, but could help facilitate an organization at the staff level by sponsoring joint meetings. There should be a group which brings people together who have experienced harassment for emotional support, to share information, and to form a political alliance. And students, suggests Ladd, could call the UAW union--which has been trying to gain collective-bargaining recognition from Harvard. But, Ladd cautions, students should go "to staff, not as superiority intelligent students, but asking for help." She thinks there could be cooperation between all women at Harvard. And there needs to be if the divisive and ineffective policies set up by Harvard--an undemocratic institution which would rank about 82 on the Fortune 500--are to be changed.

Whatever positions advocates for change take, they should not continue to ignore the thousands of employees who are their natural allies here. University employees often feel cut off, neglected, looked down upon. It is time for a more inclusive concept of community to take root. Maybe the food service workers got such strong student support last year because they feed us dinner every night. Or maybe students are becoming aware that, like others in the community, their voices are not always heard when they stand alone.