Sexual harassment, Corporate culture and Julie Gallagher

“Display or dissemination of materials (such as cartoons, articles, pictures, etc.), which have a sexual, racial, or other protected nature that is not necessary for work may constitute harassment.”

  • Code of Ethics, C.H Robinson

 

In 1985, Govind Nihalani made movie on industrial relations called – Aghaat. One of the characters in the movie was a lady welfare officer, who is exploited by head of personnel department, her husband and by union leader. The corporate world of late eighties was quite hostile to women; words like diversity, gender sensitivity, sexual harassment were unheard of.

aghaat

Few years back I met a lady who started her career sometime in late eighties. The organisation had a workers union and union leaders were quite powerful. This lady earlier belonged to worker category and was member of union, soon she got promoted and joined officer’s cadre. Some of her colleagues did not like this, they started targeting her by spreading rumours about her having affair with her boss. One day someone put a cartoon on notice board depicting her as cow and her boss milking her. She complained to her boss and head of personnel department. The cartoon was removed and but no action was taken against anyone as personnel head was more interested in maintaining cordial relations with union leaders than take action on such “trivial issues”.

harassment lab law

There is a nice phrase in Kannada language- Swalpa Adjust Maadi, which means “Please adjust a little”. The lady was asked to “adjust a little” and not to pursue the matter further.

Has corporate world changed in last 30 years?  Case of Julie Gallagher shows that, not much has changed in terms of attitude towards women, but women today are more aware of their rights and can sue organisation.

Julie Gallagher worked with Trucking Company C.H Robinson as sales representative. She worked in that organisation for four months (September 2002- December 2002). During her employment with that organisation, she was exposed on a daily basis to derogatory, gender-specific language by her branch manager and male co-workers who referred to women as “bitches,” “sluts,” “whores”.  Male employees brought into the office and shared with each other photographs of their naked girlfriends. Gallagher was also exposed to pornographic images in the magazines, which were openly kept on desks and images of naked women on computer monitors. Gallagher could not avoid hearing the derogatory comments and sexual discussions and jokes, or seeing the graphic sexual images in the office, due to the open office configuration and the loud voices in which the men spoke.

sexual harressment

“C.H. Robinson requires each employee to help keep the Company free from discrimination or harassment. Any employee aware of possible violations of these policies is required to report the situation so that the situation can be investigated and appropriately addressed.”

–  Code of Ethics, C.H Robinson

In addition, in Branch manager’s presence, male co-workers   joked about Gallagher’s weight calling her “a heifer with milking udders”, others joked that C.H Robinson covered two quotas by hiring Gallagher-the girl quota and the fat quota. She complained to her branch manager, who didn’t take any action. Finally she decided to resign and sue the organisation.

Surprisingly, the trial court dismissed the case on following grounds…

  • Since men and women were both subjected to the same atmosphere, there’s no discrimination.
  • The harassment wasn’t severe enough and not directed at her.
  • Since she reported the harassment just to her manager and did not go to HR or call the company hotline, the employer is not liable.

But higher court reversed the decision of trial court, it considered behaviour of male employees as gross evidence of a hostile work environment and sexual harassment, remarking that even though members of both sexes were exposed to the offensive conduct in the office, considering the nature of the patently degrading and anti-female nature of the harassment, it stands to reason that women would suffer, as a result of the exposure, greater disadvantage in the terms and conditions of their employment than men. The court also emphasized that focus must be placed on the effects of the harassing conduct “on the victim-recipient.”

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