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From the Top Down: Ending Sexual Harassment in the Construction Industry


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Most people understand what harassment is and how it hurts protected groups who are targeted and the businesses where workplace harassment occurs. Employers are held to a standard of reasonable care to prevent harassment on the job, and this can translate into better productivity and morale for everyone. 

Joe Bontke, an outreach manager for the EEOC, says he is excited about the new harassment-prevention training that is rolling out this month. “We all share the common denominator of business necessity, and that business necessity is what brings us together. I’m talking to you from Houston, Texas, where we can’t even find enough contractors to rebuild after our floods. This wouldn’t be a timely issue for any of the building trade here, but there will be a time when I focus on it.” 

The fact that women face more harassment on construction jobs than in the general workforce may seem like an intractable problem. 

The fact that women face more harassment on construction jobs than in the general workforce may seem like an intractable problem. Only three per cent of people in construction are female, according to a 2014 report from the National Women’s Law Center. The report says: “A study by the U.S. Department of Labor reported that 88 per cent of women construction workers experience sexual harassment at work, compared to 25 per cent of women in the general workforce.”

Kati Lake, the vice president of consulting services for RAINN, an anti-sexual violence organization, says, “Any employee should be able to and, in fact, has a legal right to feel comfortable in their workplace. We really think it’s important to educate people on what sexual harassment is. It includes: unwelcome sexual advances, requests for favors” and actions which “don’t actually have to be directed at a person. We talk about how negative comments about groups of people also constitute different forms of harassment, as well as teasing, offhand comments, or jokes.” 

Casual comments become part of a workplace culture, she says. What a victim may do is look around as see how other victims are treated when deciding whether to come forward. It is important to remember an atmosphere in which each worker is treated equally begins in the executive suites and continues down to the project level. “Sexual harassment in the workplace is going to interfere with an individual’s performance and therefore, the performance of that entire community, so it becomes an obstacle to effective and productive work. It also affects the company’s reputation in the field.”

“Sexual harassment in the workplace is going to interfere with an individual’s performance and therefore, the performance of that entire community." 

Robert A. Klingler, an employment lawyer in Cincinnati, Ohio, recalls a case from 2013 in which a male supervisor told a female cement inspector that “men are able to accomplish one thing at a time because they think linearly, but women’s minds go in ten different directions at once, and that’s why everything they do is half-assed.” The plaintiff and the employer reached a settlement shortly before the trial was set to begin.  

Bontke calls the new EEOC harassment-prevention training “edutainment.” The old training, which they had used for 20 years, had a “kind of rigid” format. “You could hear the eyes rolling” when he began to lecture employees, he says.

The new training is based on the conclusions of the bipartisan 2016 Report of the Co-Chairs of the EEOC Special Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace. It relies on trainees’ participation and puts the emphasis on positive behaviors. “Instead of looking at the negative actions, let’s go back to what we learned in kindergarten. We play nice with each other. When you hurt somebody, tell them you’re sorry. Clean up your own mess,” Bontke says. “It’s the golden rule turned into a commonsensical approach.”   

The new training system relies on interactive scenarios, he says. “Sometimes, we can intervene by addressing behaviors before they reach the level of discord. I’d like to go back to the basics: praise publicly and correct privately.” 

For example, he suggests a supervisor might say, “ ‘You know, I was over at the lunch wagon earlier. I love when you tell a good joke, Bob, but you know you use some language that’s really derogatory toward fill-in-the-blank. I’d ask you to be careful of that because you might not have known that Johnny’s son is gay’ or whatever the issue is. You’re not putting them on the spot. You’re just giving him the skillset: be careful, know your audience, and do it in an appropriate way.” 

Be careful, know your audience, and do it in an appropriate way. 

In addition to the sort of harassment that shows up in a workplace break room, people may also feel harassed or excluded by what a co-worker posts on social media. 

“The coffee room has become the World Wide Web,” Bontke says, as coworkers constantly read each other’s posts or comments. For example, a worker may decide that “because I’ve seen my supervisor liked something on Facebook, that’s why she doesn’t like me.” When this happens, “your perceptions about something become your reality,” and this can be hard to undo in day-to-day interactions. 

His advice? “Let’s just deal with the realities. Let’s just deal with what I have control over, the words I use, the eye contact I make or don’t make, the interactions that I perpetuate. Those things I do have an effect on the relationships of the people I work with.” 

RAIIN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline is 800-656-HOPE (4673)

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