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1997 Vision Optimas Award ProfileBRE.I. DuPont de Nemours and Co

October 1, 1997
Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Harassment, Vision, Featured Article
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It was back when the general response to sexual harassment in the workplace was merely gripes or giggles: the boss chasing the secretary around the desk type of scenario. It was years before the infamous Weeks v. Baker & McKenzie case would award a victim of sexual harassment $7.1 million, a monetary sting reminding companies of the punishment for complacency. It was also a few years before Anita Hill's testimony against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas would lead to a toothy new civil-rights law allowing punitive damages in sexual-harassment cases.

It was the late '80s when the HR department at Wilmington, Delaware-based E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company created a barrage of programs designed to ensure not only that women at the company were treated equitably, but that both men and women learned how to work together. The executives involved weren't setting out to rock the corporate world, they say; they were just setting out to improve the company. "I don't think we knew we were ahead of the game," says Bernard Scales, manager for workforce diversity. "I think we looked at what was right for DuPont, continuing to deliver on our value for people and our values as a company. This was a natural thing we did, and we didn't realize we were going to be on the cutting edge-that this was going to be something great, that it would have the impact it has today and ahead of other companies. But it has certainly worked out that way."

It has worked out well for DuPont, a company that had firm policies and programs in place guiding employees into the complicated '90s when other companies were just realizing they had problems.

Innuendoes, attacks and adjustments: Opening sexual harassment to discussion. A DuPont employee is having dinner with a customer. He proposes signing the final contract in his hotel room. Sexual harassment? A female employee is waiting for a male counterpart to instruct her on a lab procedure. Instead, he comments on how good she smells and jokes that his wife won't be wanting the two of them to go on a business trip. When she tries to change the subject, he comments on how smart and pretty she is. Sexual harassment?

That's what groups of 20 to 25 employees watching the video vignettes have been deciding for almost a decade in DuPont's sexual-harassment education program, A Matter of Respect. The program began back in 1988 as an outgrowth of the company's rape-prevention personal safety program. "A lot of the women attending said, 'This is good, important stuff, but what about my day-to-day work life? The exclusionary behaviors I feel? The inappropriate questions?'" remembers Bob Hamilton, DuPont's internal diversity consultant.

HR professionals decided the issue was an important one to address and, with few other corporate examples to go by, concluded the most important task was to get a conversation going-to acknowledge that there was a problem, to identify what is and isn't harassment and to start addressing the weak links.

Thus A Matter of Respect was born. Although the program isn't mandatory, it is, as Hamilton puts it, "Extremely highly recommended. It's as close to a mandatory program as we have." The company offers it on a regular basis, and business units can also request it as necessary.

It's structured to be as uninflammatory as possible. Participants are men and women in approximately equal numbers. In addition, the program is hosted by two facilitators, a man and a woman. "That's absolutely essential to this kind of work," says Hamilton. "If there's just a woman, then it's [like] someone waving a flag for a cause. If there's just a man, [women think] how are we going to have these guys who are doing the harassing telling us what's good and what's bad?"

The meeting is held onsite in a one-hour or a four-hour version (only those business units extremely crunched for time get the one-hour version, which includes the 20-minute video of vignettes and a 30-minute "highlights" discussion). The group sits in an open circle of chairs to watch the video in which actors play out different scenarios of sexual harassment. In the four-hour version, facilitators pause the tape after each vignette and elicit comments from the participants. Was it sexual harassment? Was the behavior in line with the law? With company policy? How would you have handled the situation? "The participants struggle; they go back and forth," says Janet Staats, a DuPont recruiting specialist who also acts as a facilitator. "There's discussion to determine exactly what's happening. We don't spoon feed them. They have to think about whether what they're seeing is or isn't harassment, because it helps them determine, after they leave the meeting room, whether situations are appropriate or not."

It's this determination of what is and isn't harassment that facilitators try to urge participants to explore. That's why so many of the vignettes are true gray-area situations: For one employee, it may definitely be inappropriate; for another, it may be acceptable. "That frustrates people," says Hamilton. "We work with a lot of people who want to have a menu of what behaviors are acceptable and what aren't."

Co-workers, employees and customers: Sexual harassment cuts across all lines. Hamilton and Staats say one of the most thought-provoking scenarios is the vignette depicting third-party harassment from a customer. Employees appreciate that DuPont acknowledges the issue, and ensuing discussions help employees decide how best to deal with it. Then there's the real debate-starter in which a woman appears to proposition a male colleague. "That's the place where many of the men in the audience first say, 'Hey, there is something to this stuff,'" says Hamilton. "They've seen five or six vignettes, and it has always been, 'Well, I don't think it's that bad. Women are really sensitive; they don't understand where we're coming from.' Now all of a sudden it's, 'Wow! This woman's really coming on. She has her nerve.' It's kind of fascinating because a lot of lightbulbs start going off at one time."

Throughout the conversations, which can get fairly edgy, the facilitators remind participants of the resources they have at DuPont: whom to contact with problems, what the process will likely be, the extent of confidentiality they can expect at varying stages and so on.

The more questions raised, the better. "We wanted to make it an interactive, participatory program, not just look at a video and leave," says Hamilton. The facilitators also offer their names and numbers and a list of internal contact people if employees want to discuss any of the issues or problems they're having in more detail.

Although the video hasn't been updated in recent years, the discussions resulting from the scenarios have changed. One scenario in which two male managers considering a woman for a particular assignment discuss her looks and her divorce used to bring admonitions about the men's behavior. Today, it also fosters a healthy discussion on women's career development and their need to be involved in the process.

In recent years, other workplace diversity issues have cropped up, such as how to treat employees with different lifestyles or religions, employees with disabilities, and gay and lesbian employees. Accordingly, the facilitators have tried to stretch A Matter of Respect to cover all areas of employee diversity and the importance of treating others well.

Despite the video's focus on sexual harassment, facilitators encourage the discussion to go wherever participants feel it needs to go.

In keeping with this philosophy, DuPont instituted a policy this year called Zero People Treatment Incidents in which the company has stated it won't tolerate any act of harassment, discrimination or oppression against any groups protected under its EEO/affirmative action statement. HR also is planning a new round of video vignettes specifically directed to issues of class, sexual orientation and disability to better help illustrate the Zero People Treatment Incidents principle.

Currently, approximately 65 percent of the DuPont workforce has attended A Matter of Respect. The company is now taking it global, with workshops in Japan, China, Mexico, Puerto Rico and most of Europe completed or in the works. Hamilton says the core goals of the program remain the same, but DuPont allows each country to adapt the workshop to its own cultural needs.

DuPont doesn't know if the workshop has had a direct impact on sexual harassment incidents within the company. HR chose not to track the numbers, because if cases go up, executives can interpret that either positively (people are encouraged by the program to get help) or negatively (the program actually isn't changing harassers' mindsets). Likewise, if numbers go down, that could be interpreted either as the program doing a good job or that managers have created an intimidating environment in which people fear reporting. Such a tracking system would be too subjective, says Hamilton.

What DuPont executives do track, however, is the overall climate change and new openness since the program's inception. "We as a company feel good about this particular program because of the impact it has made over the years," says Hamilton. "The importance we've put on it, the value we've put on it, and the visibility we've put on it all have paid off."

Jacquelyn McCulley-Stevens, network organizer for Milwaukee-based 9 to 5, the National Association for Working Women, says DuPont's program is exemplary of what a good workshop on sexual-harassment awareness should be. "It's always key to educate employees and offer different kinds of programs in which individuals can see and learn what sexual harassment looks like and how it comes into the workplace. DuPont should be applauded for having that [information] accessible to its male and female employees."

Counselors, hot lines and beepers: The support doesn't end with the workday. The harder part of facilitators' jobs comes not while hosting A Matter of Respect, but a few days afterward, when an employee decides to pick up the phone and call them. "It tends to work that way because many times we rekindle [memories] or get people to reconnect with things that happened to them. Or they start to get some different possible resolutions to situations they're currently involved in," says Hamilton.

The main job of the facilitators when such a situation occurs is to guide the employee to the next step in the sexual-harassment solution process, whether that's referring the person to Hamilton so he can conduct an investigation or encouraging the employee to talk to the person who's upsetting him or her. DuPont's 100-plus peer-level facilitators are well-schooled in either step. All have completed five to 30 days of training that allows them to counsel employees and participate in the initial investigative process. The volunteers learn the legal implications of sexual harassment; they learn how to guide employees to help; they learn how to talk to worried workers, as well as to listen. They complete programs on multicultural issues, personal safety, abusive relationships and assisting employees who have been physically or sexually assaulted or raped.

Facilitators take their roles seriously. Some work on a variety of diversity issues. They help design and deliver diversity programs, run a harassment hot line, work with external consultants, counsel the business leadership and create diversity councils and teams in particular business units.

Their jobs can be painful. "There's nothing worse than when your stomach just tightens when somebody calls on the phone and now it's the real thing," says Staats. "You've got to think of the right thing to say to help this person along. You've volunteered. You're a part of the process of keeping DuPont healthy."

Oftentimes, employees just need the support of a facilitator to take the next step. Hamilton says he, for instance, refuses to just report potential harassment situations for employees; the employees must first take ownership of the problem themselves. He always offers to go with a person to file a report or to talk to the alleged harasser. Hamilton says this is often the turning point: Few employees take him up on it, but they're reassured knowing someone's willing to stand with them.

This is no small commitment; it's a round-the-clock pledge to help employees. If a woman wants to talk to someone about a harassment situation, she can pick up the phone at midnight on a Saturday-on a holiday even-and find a willing listener. The company's 24-hour hot line, which addresses issues from sexual harassment to sexual-orientation discrimination, runs 365 days a year.

When an employee calls the hot line, a facilitator's beeper goes off. The company assigns facilitators on a weekly schedule to carry the beeper. They must keep it on them, or near their bedside while sleeping, at all times during that week. "If a call comes in at 4 o'clock in the morning, it's going to beep and get me up," says Scales. "Then, I just work with the [person], talk with him or her, and try to understand what's going on. Most important, I have to help the employee decide what's right for [him or her] and what [he or she] can do about it. In the extreme case of a rape, I don't want to re-victimize the victim. I've got to let the person maintain a sense of ownership and dignity, to support the victim in anyway possible."

Talking, sharing and myth debunking: Men and women learn to work together. Sexual harassment and discrimination are, thankfully, not the norm in the workplace today. But there are still lingering issues involving men and women simply working together. Women have, after all, not been a workforce commonplace for that long. So, to complement A Matter of Respect, DuPont also created Women and Men Working as Colleagues. "Sexual harassment deals with one discrete entity about how men deal with women and the behaviors they display," says Scales. "But there's the bigger arena of work and, as suggested by the title, being colleagues. A company must have this attendant with any sexual-harassment training program. We don't want to alienate the men from trying to seek collaborative relationships with women, so we've got to show what we need to do to have good working relationships."

This three-day program, again "highly recommended" and offered every few months or as-needed, tries to help participants realize the varying and valuable viewpoints men and women bring to a business situation. The program doesn't seek to downplay the differences between men and women, but instead celebrates them as a means to a successful business. "The traditional approach has been, 'Women are totally welcome in the organization-just come in and act like a white male,'"says Hamilton. "We wanted to get away from that."

Like A Matter of Respect, the program encourages interaction rather than lecturing. In one exercise, for instance, men and women are broken off into separate teams and asked to create a system for dropping an egg from the ceiling to the floor without breaking it.

Hamilton says the women's groups are consistently more harmonious, more interactive and more creative. While the men try to promote their individual ideas, the women collaborate. The men usually end up using an object, like a pillow, to cushion the egg's fall. The women have dreamed up trapezes, slides and counterbalances.

"On the women's teams, they all feel better because they've all worked on [the solution], they've all been included," says Hamilton. "Many times in the men's groups, a few feel really good and a couple of them feel really poor because [the solution] wasn't their idea. It's a great exercise in reminding people of the power of diversity."

Participants also discuss the different communication styles of men and women and the very different experiences the two genders have throughout life, from socialization to schooling and then to the workplace.

To demonstrate how these experiences play themselves out in everyday attitudes, men and women in one exercise write down a list of adjectives describing the opposite sex. Hamilton says often men will display a list of negative stereotypes. "Then we suggest, 'Does your wife or significant other fit this listing?' and they say no, [their wives] are exceptions. 'Well wait a minute, how come? Did all of you in this room happen to meet exceptions?' It makes a good point."

Still on the cutting edge of the diversity issue, DuPont recently has started a sexual-orientation workshop and the industry's first men's forum, a three-day process that deals with men's issues of privilege, power, entitlement and control, and how to be more receptive to women and people of color.

The company is always searching for ways to keep pushing the envelope. "The more I get into this work, the less comfortable I am," says Hamilton. "I always feel there's something more to be done. We're hopeful that by having these training programs and providing the awareness, people will begin to change their behaviors and their attitudes and do the right thing."

The fight for a discrimination-free workplace is far from over. But thanks to its problem-solving programs, thought-provoking discussions and intense overall commitment, DuPont certainly is leading the way.

Workforce, October 1997, Vol. 76, No. 10, pp. 38-43.


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