Sexual Harassment

Topic: Human Resource Management/Sexual Harassment

Characters: Paula, Management trainee in the Production Department of a medium-sized company Steve, Vice President of Production and Paula’s Manager Richard, Paula’s coworker and a Manager in Production


Paula, a recent college graduate, is a newly hired manager in the Production Department of a medium-sized US. company. The first woman selected for this production training position, Paula takes her work very seriously. She has been with the organization for three months. For the first two months, she performed her duties very well, but during the last month, Steve, her boss, has noticed a change in Paula. She seems more tense and uneasy and is not concentrating on her work as conscientiously as she previously did

During the last month, Paula has been continually harassed by Richard, a coworker. At first she tried ignoring his jokes and sexual banter. However, his persistence has caused Paula to have very uncomfortable feelings while she is at work and at home as well. Paula looked into the employee’s handbook concerning sexual harassment policies and found none. She really did not know what to do.

Finally, after noticing her continually declining work, Steve asked her what was bothering her. She told him the problem and showed him information concerning the EEOC laws dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace she had found in a human resources textbook from college. She also said that she was considering taking action against Richard if his actions continued.

Steve told her he was totally unaware of the problem but agreed something should be done. He asked her to investigate what the organization needed to do to stop this from occurring now and also to anyone else in the future. He also thanked Paula for her patience and honesty and also promised her that something would be done.

Author: Dr. Marilyn M. Helms, Associate Professor of Management, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

What Are the Relevant Facts?

  1. The company has no policies concerning sexual harassment.
  2. Richard has been sexually harassing Paula for the last month.
  3. Paula’s uneasiness has been reflected in her work habits.
  4. Steve agrees something needs to be done about this problem.

What Are the Ethical Issues?

  1. What is sexual harassment, and why is it prohibited?
  2. What obligations does a company have to deal with sexual harassment issues? Does an organization have an obligation to establish written policies on sexual harassment?
  3. What obligations does a manager have to deal with accusations or established incidents of sexual harassment among his subordinates? How should such incidents be handled?
  4. What should be done with individuals who are accused of sexual harassment? What would be appropriate penalties for individuals found to have been involved in sexual harassment of others?
  5. What obligation does a company and its managers have towards the victims of sexual harassment?

Who Are the Primary Stakeholders?

  • Paula
  • Steve
  • Richard
  • All other organizational employees
  • Stockholders of the organization (if work and profits continue to be affected)
  • Consumers (if distressed work habits lower the quality and safety of the final products)

What Are the Possible Alternatives?

  1. T ake disciplinary action toward Richard.
  2. Develop harassment policies according to the EEOC guidelines.
  3. Do nothing and hope the sexual harassment will decrease.
  4. Paula could quit the job.

What Are the Ethics of the Alternatives?

  • Ask questions from a “utilitarian” perspective:
  1. What are the long-range costs for companies that fail to deal with the issue of sexual harassment? What benefits, if any, does a company receive if it fails to act on sexual harassment issues?
  2. If Steve fails to deal with this incident of sexual harassment, what are the probable consequences?
  3. Which way of dealing with this incident would produce the greatest benefits for all the stakeholders?
  • Ask questions based on a “rights” perspective:
  1. What rights does the victim expect?
  2. What rights does the violator expect?
  3. What rights does the company expect?
  • Ask questions based on a “justice” perspective:
  1. Which alternative would benefit the stakeholders the most fairly?
  2. If nothing is done, which stakeholders would carry the greatest burden?

What Are the Practical Constraints?

  1. As the Vice President and direct manager, Steve must consider the legal issues involved with the EEOC.
  2. Paula probably does have the right to sue the company if she desires; and the burden of proof lies with the company.

What Actions Should Be Taken?

  1. What actions should Paula take?
  2. Should Steve address this current problem before he asks Paula to draft a harassment policy for the organization?
  3. Is Paula the best choice to develop this document?
  4. Should Richard be fired? Punished?
  5. What are the choices Steve can take, and which would you choose? Why? What ethical theories make the most sense (utilitarian, rights, justice) concerning this case?
  6. What actions should Steve take?