ABA releases 'Zero Tolerance' guide for workplace sexual harassment

By Anamika Roy
BridgeTower Media Newswires
As workplaces across industries look at sexual harassment and its impact on women professionals in the #MeToo era, the legal world is no different. The American Bar Association Commission on Women in the Profession recently entered the discussion with “Zero Tolerance,” a manual that aims to eliminate sexual harassment in the legal workplace by 2020.

The manual draws heavily on past publications by the commission, which was founded in 1992, with an additional focus on LGBTQ rights and gender-based bullying, as well as perspectives from nearly 100 attorneys across the country about workplace sexual harassment.

“We hold ourselves out as examples of professional conduct,” said Hilarie Bass, president of the American Bar Association. “We want to ensure there are no barriers making legal employment inhospitable for female employees.”

The manual begins with preface from Anita Hill, an attorney and professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis University. Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment before his confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991.

“Most instances of workplace mistreatment will not reach the media or be the subject of public discussion. And even in public conversations about the regularity of sex-based harassment and climates, we often lose sight of the human costs of abusive behavior,” Hill wrote. “The commission’s work reminds us that individuals and their work suffer when they are harassed and bullied on their jobs.”

The text contains principles employers, both in the legal world and other industries, should include in their sexual harassment policies: make sure there is an anonymous method to report harassment claims; make sure senior management is aware about those reports; ensure there is no retaliation against the victim; and investigate the complaint thoroughly.

The reporting and investigation processes should take place outside a human resources department, which can be viewed as working to protect the employer and may make employees think twice about reporting harassment, said Bass, the Miami-based co-president of Greenberg Traurig LLP.

One of the biggest challenges in addressing sexual harassment in the workplace, she added, is making sure women feel safe coming forward with a complaint.

“Many women attorneys still perceive that making a sexual harassment complaint is a career-ending event. Even if they report to an anonymous tip line, eventually it will become apparent that they were the complainer,” she said.

In order to change the culture, more people who witness harassment but aren’t necessarily the subject of it need to speak up, Bass said.

“We have to stop giving our colleagues a pass,” she said. “This is a problem that will only be solved if we work together.”

Studies show sexual harassment is less reported today than it was 25 years ago, but both data and anecdotes show that harassment is still a problem in the legal world, according to the commission.

Based on broad definitions of sexual harassment, including bullying, implicit bias and other barriers, nearly 50 percent of women lawyers and court personnel, depending on the survey, reported experiencing some sexual harassment at their present or previous jobs, the ABA commission found. Approximately 75 percent of women in those professions said they believe harassment is a problem in the workplace.

Such behavior can create barriers to career advancement and discourage women from staying at their jobs or pursuing leadership roles, the commission found.

While women make up about half of the law school population, the percentage decreases as attorneys progress. Forty-five percent of associates in practice are women, but only 21.5 percent are equity partners and 18 percent are equity partners, that figure has only increased 2 percentage points in the last 10 years. Only about 25 percent of general counsel at Fortune 500 companies are women, according to the ABA.


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