Sexual harassment and/or gender discrimination happens in every profession, and the law is no exception. The key is knowing what to do about it.
Catholic University law students were offered an overview of the problem and the best responses to it at “Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment and Gender Discrimination in the Legal Profession,” an April 7 discussion sponsored by the Women’s Law Caucus and the Office of Career and Professional Development.
Four expert panelists participated in the discussion (top, left to right)
- Alexis Howard, an attorney in the Office of Federal Operations, United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
- Larry Morris, general counsel of The Catholic University of America and a 27-year veteran of the Judge Advocate Corps, United States Army.
- Ellen Opper-Weiner, a solo practitioner in Bethesda, Maryland, with a practice focus on discrimination and civil rights claims. She is a 1995 alumna of the Columbus School of Law.
- Edward Loughlin, senior trial attorney, Office of General Counsel, United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The greatest number of workplace harassment cases that come before the EEOC involve retaliation, students were told. That is, an employee may report an instance of harassment or discrimination by a colleague or boss, then suffer the consequences as a result.
Often insidious in nature and harder to prove legally, retaliatory “payback” makes many people think twice before lodging a justified complaint.
“The price that one has to pay is that you take a huge risk professionally and emotionally when you stand up and say, no, I’m not going to take this anymore,” said Opper-Weiner. “It’s a very tough line to draw.”
The experts advised that in most cases, the person doing the harassing or discriminating should be confronted by the wronged party, before pursuing official avenues of redress.
“The first thing is to explain to the person that their conduct is unwelcome,” said Howard.
While the federal government has comprehensive and clear-cut procedures for dealing with oppressive workplace atmospheres, the private sector is all over the place.
Loughlin noted the wide variety of approaches found in private companies, and advised students to always “be familiar with the process” of how their human resource departments handle discrimination and harassment issues.