How the Harrassment Landscape Has Changed

A current film, North Country, tells the story of a landmark sexual harassment class-action case. Attorney Paul Sprenger, who represented the lead plaintiff, talks about harassment then and now.

November 15, 2005

Paul Sprenger
Attorney for mine worker Lois Jenson. portrayed in the new movie North Country.

The new movie North Country reconstructs the struggle of Lois Jenson and other female workers at the Eveleth Mines in Minnesota against sexual harassment in the workplace. Attorney Paul Sprenger, who represented Jenson in her legal battle against Eveleth, spoke to Workforce Management staff writer Gina Ruiz about the continuing challenges that sexual harassment presents in today’s workplace.

Workforce Management: How did the Lois Jenson case change sexual harassment law in America?

Paul Sprenger: This was a landmark case in many respects. It was the first time that a judge agreed to try a sexual harassment suit on a class-action basis. Now there is a weapon, so to speak, that women can use to sue for sexual harassment as part of a collective group—and there is power in numbers. As a result, human resource groups across the country began to draft formal policies against sexual harassment, using documentation from the case as a basis.

WM: Is sexual harassment still a reality in today’s workplace?

Sprenger: It tends to happen more in isolated places. Even in offices of 30 to 50 people, there is potential for a boss creating a sexually hostile environment. But it could also happen in big companies. Ford, for example, has several hundred facilities throughout the country, and even though the company has a formal policy against sexual harassment it may be difficult to keep track of its implementation in the more isolated places. What makes a difference in stemming sexual harassment is whether the boss is in tune to it or whether he ignores it. If he ignores it, things can run amok.

WM: Does the type of sexual harassment that today’s workers encounter differ from what Jenson and her peers faced in the ’70s and ’80s?

Sprenger: Sexual harassment has taken new forms. Today, women workers may turn on their computers and find pornographic material. This is less extreme than what went on at Eveleth Mines, but it is sexual harassment nonetheless and can be very distressing.

WM: What are some important measures that companies can implement to combat sexual harassment in the workplace?

Sprenger: Besides having a written policy against sexual harassment, companies need to have preordained penalties. The penalties should be spelled out and companies should stick to them. This eliminates judgment from the system and ensures that everybody is punished the same—whether they are a vice president or a laborer.

WM: Going forward, what are some of the biggest challenges that companies face in the battle against sexual harassment.

Sprenger: There have to be regular refreshers of sexual harassment policies. I know of a company that had a strong policy against sexual harassment for many years but did not update it. When computers became more common in the workplace, circumstances which were not covered by the old policy came into play. People get creative in finding ways to sexually harass others. It takes a vigilant human resources manager to detect these new practices and to amend the policies accordingly.

Workforce Management, November 7, 2005, p. 9 -- Subscribe Now!