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Survey shows sexual harassment in Fortune 500 Companies

By PEG BYRON

NEW YORK -- A survey of sexual harassment at Fortune 500 companies shows nearly all the firms received complaints, with the most common being verbal abuse and pressure for sexual favors, it was reported Tuesday.

The survey found that 42 percent of the reported complaints involved pressure for sexual favors or dates, 26 percent involved deliberate touching, leaning over or cornering.

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Actual or attempted sexual assault was involved in 1 percent of the cases.

One-third of the complaints were from men, the survey showed.

'Sexual harassment can no longer be viewed as the stereotype of the horny boss chasing the secretary around the desk,' Working Woman magazine Editor in Chief Anne Mollegen said in releasing the survey.

'It has business costs and it has human costs,' she said. 'Sexual harassment is a financial time bomb for American business.'

In the survey, 160 of the country's 500 top industrial and service firms answered the questionnaire.

Almost 90 percent of the companies responding said they had received at least one complaint of sexual harassment in the previous 12 months, and 64 percent of the executives said they considered most of such complaints to be valid.

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Eight out of 10 offenders received verbal or written warnings, and two out of 10 eventually were fired, sometimes after a warning. Demotion, suspension, transfers or probation were used in fewer than 6 percent of the cases, the survey reported.

'Sexual harassment is about abuse of power, not sexual desire,' Smith said, noting that 'trailblazing women' at companies with mostly male employees are the most vulnerable, while one-third of complainants were men.

One-third of the firms reported they have been sued, and nearly a quarter said they have been sued repeatedly.

At the news conference, lawyers who represent both corporate plaintiffs and defendants said both sides prefer little publicity and settlements typically include a gag order.

'Any corporation I've represented cleans up its act' in the wake of expensive litigation, said William Bruce, who has represented Fortune 500 firms in Connecticut.

Commenting on the low rate of reported complaints -- the survey found 1.4 cases per 1,000 women -- Bruce said, 'I think the best sexual harassment cases haven't even been brought yet.'

New York lawyer Judith Vladeck said she recommends that harassed employees first seek in-house mechanisms to resolve their problems in order to avoid retribution or being forced from a job.

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Based on her own research, Dr. Freada Klein, the management consultant who analyzed the magazine's survey, said sexual harassment, whether or not it is reported to management, annually costs the average Fortune 500 firm $6.7 million in absenteeism, low productivity and employee turnover, in addition to any actual litigation costs.

In 1987, a record $3.2 million was paid by one company to settle a single case, while out-of-court settlements can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Klein said.

Most of the aggressors were superiors, while previous surveys of government employees have found most of such complaints involved co-workers, Klein said.

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