May 23, 2018

Lawyers Tell Everything You Want to Know About Sexual Harassment in PCDO Forum

By Donald Gilpin

With the #MeToo movement dominating the national conversation, “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sexual Harassment But Were Afraid to Ask” was a timely topic for last Sunday evening’s meeting of the Princeton Community Democratic Organization (PCDO) at the Suzanne Patterson Center.

Featured speakers were New York lawyers Allegra Fishel, founder and executive director of the Gender Equality Center, and Susan Crumiller, founder and principal attorney of Crumiller P.C., a Manhattan law firm dedicated to fighting gender and pregnancy discrimination, both well versed on the pervasiveness and seriousness of sexual harassment in the workplace and what to do about it.

They led a lively, informative discussion of political and legislative trends, including applicable laws, both federal and state, and tips on how to deal with harassment from the perspectives of both employer and employee.

Arguing that most employers need to develop a much more effective system of handling complaints, Crumiller cited Harvey Weinstein, who wielded power and wealth and was able to operate with impunity because his company did not take complaints seriously and colleagues were willing to go to great lengths to cover up his behavior, as the most conspicuous example of current abuses in the workplace.

Crumiller noted, “There is a mentality that women are not as important. That’s what has to change.” A Princeton High School (PHS) graduate and the first female wrestler in the history of PHS, Crumiller laid out her list of “best practices for employers” to be effective in eradicating sexual harassment. An employer must care about the issue; must value the work of employees, particularly women employees; must make it his/her duty to stop harassment; must have a written policy; must have a clear reporting path; must guarantee confidentiality while investigating complaints; must make sure there has been no retaliation; must provide frequent training for all employees; and must encourage witnesses to report.

“My personal takeaway,” said PCDO Program Committee Chair Scotia W. MacRae, “is that the #MeToo movement is a response to the tendency of employers to discount complaints of sexual harassment.”

Crumiller emphasized the importance of “having a robust written policy that demonstrates the employer’s commitment to confidentiality, protects against retaliation, and encourages reporting.”

She noted the difficulty for victims in most work environments to speak up. “It’s shocking how many women don’t report harassment for fear of retaliation. It’s easy to say go report, go report, but it’s always hard to do. There’s never a simple answer. You have your career to look after.”

After graduating from Tulane University in 2002 and New York University School of Law in 2006, Crumiller spent ten years representing New York tenants in landlord-tenant litigation before she had her second child and decided to create her own law firm dedicated to fighting for rights of new working parents. She helps women negotiate maternity leave and files lawsuits on behalf of women who have suffered pregnancy discrimination, including wrongful termination or other sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace.

A civil rights lawyer for more than 25 years, focusing on advocating for the rights of women and the LGBTQ community, Fishel made the point that low-wage workers are especially vulnerable to harassment and have very little financial or personal support for their complaints.

“They feel they have no recourse if they are harassed by their supervisor,” she said. Most victims, she noted, face a stark choice, leave the company, or go to the law, which in most cases also results in leaving the company. Fishel, who claims to have counseled more than 1,000 victims of sexual harassment in her career to date, is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the Boston University School of Law.

During the course of the evening, the featured speakers and the audience explored several questions relating to sexual harassment, such as “Is it harassment to say to someone, ‘You look nice today?’” “Is it harassment to ask your secretary to go to lunch on Secretary’s Day?”

“Look at the context” was the lawyers’ answer. “The crux of harassment is that it is unwanted,” Fishel said. “It really is about context. The law does not prohibit a romantic relationship, unless it is unwelcome.”

To make a case for sexual harassment, Crumiller noted, the accuser has to show that the harasser has made it clear that there is a quid pro quo, such as do this and I will promote you, or if you don’t I will not promote you or fire you; or has created a hostile work environment with severe and pervasive actions and words.