Workforce.com

When Sexual Harassment Is Foreign

April 1, 1996
Scenario #1:
Sandra Whitney is on a three-year, career-enhancing assignment in Mexico for her company and finds herself the target of unwanted sexual attention from her new male manager—a citizen of the host country. Whitney complains to a female co-worker (who's also a citizen), but is told this behavior is "normal." When the behavior persists after Whitney has made it clear she isn't interested, she consults with the human resources manager in her host country. She finds there are no laws protecting women from sexual harassment on the job, although she's assured that her company's policy and the U.S. laws will be maintained.

Scenario #2:
Connie Bosworth is working on a team with several men from Europe who have been sent to the United States for six months. Bosworth finds these mens' flirtatious language and gestures charming and endearing, but she feels ambivalent because she realizes that if an American man said the same things to her, it wouldn't be acceptable. Are Europeans bound by the same rules?

Sexual discrimination is a little-discussed problem in cross-cultural relationships.
Both of the scenarios above, and other tales of sexual discrimination, are realistic for today's multinational companies and the emerging global workplace. In the past five years alone, the number of female expatriates of U.S. companies has more than doubled according to a recent news item in The Wall Street Journal on September 5, 1995. New York City-based Windham International, which conducted the survey, predicts the number of expatriate women will reach 20% (of all U.S. expatriates) by the year 2000. In addition, the U.S. workforce is ethnically and culturally more diverse than ever and this trend is expected to continue. As we struggle to understand and negotiate both the subtle and more complicated issues related to sexual harassment in our domestic marketplace, we also must be aware of the added concerns of working overseas with co-workers, customers and vendors of many different nationalities.

To find out what individuals and organizations experience in the international marketplace, we asked several companies to share their stories. As consultants with extensive backgrounds in human resources management and cross-cultural business settings, we also reviewed what has been written on the subject. A key question we posed: "What have you encountered as far as sexual harassment incidents that occurred between people of two different cultures, whether they were employees, customers, vendors or clients?"

While exploring this relatively uncharted territory, several corporate human resources executives from multinational organizations told us we'd have trouble getting any information. Because of the potential liability, and the potential threat to an organization's image, they suggested that candid responses would be scarce. Indeed, the most frequent response we got was that companies had limited experience with the issue, and therefore, they had little to report. The topic of sexual harassment is one that many organizations find difficult to address. And when it's complicated by cross-cultural issues, it becomes even more foreboding.

In fact, several organizations refused to return our calls or stated that they didn't want to participate. Some respondents, including human resources managers at Akron, Ohio-based The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and Chicago based Amoco Corp., stated they either have had "no incidents" or none that couldn't be handled at the local level.

Is this possible for firms having thousands of employees working both domestically and internationally? Yes, but it's highly unlikely. At Wilmington, Delaware-based E.I. du Pont de Nemours (DuPont), a company noted for its work in sexual harassment training, there were no reported cases of sexual harassment internationally that have reached HR representatives at the corporate level. Bob Hamilton, a diversity consultant with DuPont, conceded that there may have been some situations, but they would have been handled as close to the front lines as possible. He added that third party cases of sexual harassment aren't rare, but DuPont doesn't keep records of these events.

George Krock, manager of EEO and selection at Pittsburgh-based PPG Industries Inc., told us: "In the last couple of years, there have been four incidents involving employees of PPG: two in North America, one in Asia and one in Europe." Similar numbers were quoted by a senior human resources manager in a large pharmaceuticals company: Approximately one to four sexual harassment complaints are filed each year internationally.

Both of these corporations (typical of an increasing number of multinational organizations) employ tens of thousands of employees outside the United States—although many are citizens of the host country. Philadelphia-based SmithKline Beecham, for example, operates in nearly 80 countries and currently has approximately 250 expatriates. When you consider that there are many more expatriate women these days, the actual number of cases of sexual harassment globally seems surprisingly small. Have we triumphed over sexual harassment in cross-cultural settings? Have employers managed to eliminate "unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature," not to mention ridding their workplaces of "hostile or intimidating environments"? Are individuals in cross-cultural work environments more careful, better informed and generally more respectful of each other?

That's certainly one possibility. More believable, however, is the interpretation by one head of international HR for several financial-service organizations over the last several years. He suggests that companies might not have accurate information to report because employees are cautious about disclosing sexual harassment incidents—particularly when they occur cross-culturally. There are many reasons for this. One is the problem that sexual harassment is often under-reported, understated or trivialized—regardless of where it occurs or who's involved. Jim Yates, manager of human resources for international operations with Amoco, says another problem may be the desirability of the overseas assignment. "People may not want to jeopardize their jobs," he says. These positions are highly valued, sometimes taking years to attain.

Training employees about cultural differences before international assignments may help avert problems.
Craig Pratt, of Craig Pratt and Associates based in Alameda, California, is an investigator of sexual harassment complaints for San Francisco Bay Area companies. Having been an expert witness in 40 sexual harassment court battles over the past four years, he finds that a disproportionate number of cross-cultural sexual harassment complaints involve perpetrators and victims from differing ethnic, racial or national-origin groups. He often has thought about the complexity presented by sexual harassment situations in cross-cultural contexts. His experiences strongly support the idea that when individuals from two different cultures interact, the potential for problems with sexual harassment is greater, not smaller.

Cultural relativism—the notion that ethics, values and behavior are a function of culture—is one way to understand, and perhaps to dismiss, the issue. In fact, all of the HR and international managers we spoke to raised the notion of a cultural context as central to the discussion. Pratt frequently encounters situations which might be better understood (although not necessarily forgiven) when cultural frame-works are considered. What's acceptable in one culture may be disrespectful and confusing in another. What U.S. citizens may construe as sexually provocative or offensive, for example, isn't shared by most—or even many—cultures.

Bill Ferra, director of U.S. management and development services for Heinz USA in Pittsburgh, reports that Europeans think Americans are "crazy" with all of our laws about sexual harassment. Some behaviors that deeply violate norms of U.S. culture may not be perceived as a problem in another cultural context. In many Mediterranean and Latin countries, physical contact and sensuality are a common part of socializing. For example, one Brazilian senior HR executive was surprised when he was admonished for calling the women at work "girls." While this label was appropriate and acceptable in his native culture, he wasn't aware it was insulting to North American women and could contribute to a "hostile or intimidating work environment" by U.S. standards.

Rudiger Daunke, VP of international HR for Bausch & Lomb Inc. based in Rochester, New York, notes that U.S. citizens proceed carefully in their cross-cultural relationships abroad because of cultural differences. The organizations we surveyed unanimously agreed that the incidence of sexual harassment across cultures can be diminished with adequate cultural preparation of employees. Interestingly, many international companies have such programs in place.

Bill Mossett, vice president and director of employee relations and diversity for SmithKline Beecham, says its program Managing Transculturally, is currently being rolled out for managers with assignments in the United States and the United Kingdom. This newly instituted program has both a general component as well as culture-specific information. Theoretically, managers might go through it three or four times during their careers—each time they go on assignment to a different country.

Similarly, Amoco offers its expatriates and spouses a two- to three-day, cross-cultural program. The topics covered include such issues as social behaviors, relationships, titles, dining practices and American perceptions. In addition, once a U.S. expatriate is in the host country, he or she receives another cultural orientation.

While this cross-cultural training is a proactive measure that helps diminish the potential for cultural misunderstandings between men and women, it may be inadequate and limited. None of the programs surveyed includes specific information about sexual harassment or sexual discrimination. Moreover, many U.S. companies don't offer stand-alone sexual harassment training (although it's sometimes included as part of diversity awareness training) for their domestic employees. Such training is rarer still for host- country nationals. One exception, DuPont, reports that as many as 90% of its domestic employees have attended sexual-harassment training. In addition, the company says most of its offshore leaders have participated, as well as its international employees on assignment in the United States. But this is rarely the case.

When sexual harassment training is provided, the content is specific to the laws and customs of the United States, not to the international destinations of increasing numbers of employees in multinational companies. The sexual-harassment programs in multinational companies—if they're even offered or required—are for domestic, not international employees. And their focus is local, not global.

Another inadequacy to the cross-cultural preparation for most expatriates is that the courses are usually offered for employees on long-term assignment, not for the occasional visitor or business traveler. One international HR executive says that because of the lack of preparation, the occasional visitor becomes the company's greatest liability. He says: "When [U.S. citizens abroad] aren't culturally sensitive, they may use inappropriate gestures or names that can be perceived as harassment, even when it's not intentional."

One example of a cross-cultural preparation course we encountered is the Passport/Visa Program used at Amoco for its international business travelers and U.S. employees who host foreign visitors. The passport section is a fairly generic cross-cultural review, while the visa component is country-specific. The organization has visa programs for countries such as China, Russia, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Trinidad and the United States. HR currently is developing programs for Europe and Latin America. Benefits to the learners include being able to "identify, anticipate, avoid, minimize and resolve areas of potential conflict resulting from cultural differences." The only drawback is brevity—the program is only a half-day course.

Finally, cross-cultural training is designed for employees destined for overseas assignments. But it's rarely an option for domestic employees who'll be interacting with foreigners on a regular basis in their jobs.

Should you define sexual harassment by home- or host-country standards?
Even when cultural preparation is adequate, it begs the question of cultural relativism. Should an organization operating in a host country with different customs and moral traditions insist that all behavior be measured according to home-country standards? If men and women have interacted in a certain way for hundreds of years in a culture, who shall judge that certain language or behavior is wrong or bad? Sexual harassment is one manifestation of sexual discrimination. Values and behaviors about women's rights aren't as deeply entrenched in many societies as in our own.

Mahbub ul Haq, a United Nations development program team leader and the author of a recent U.N. report cited by USA Today on August 29, 1995, states: "There isn't a single society in the world that treats its men and women equally, not even by accident." Undoubtedly, expatriate women face unique problems.

Jim Yates of Amoco echoes a common sentiment about the difficulties women encounter cross-culturally: "In some countries, there are barriers that have affected the ability of females to be fully integrated into a project or team." Another senior HR executive notes: "Particularly in 'macho' cultures, it's strange to interact with women in a professional capacity." In these environments, men may take advantage of women because they're accustomed to relating in traditional ways. Even on the egalitarian ground of the United States, the same problems may arise.

"If sexual discrimination, including sexual harassment, is the norm in some cultures, should it be ignored when it occurs."

Jane Henderson-Loney, of the Timner Consultant Group in the San Francisco suburb of Clayton, California, describes a Middle Eastern-born man working in the United States who was accused of sexually harassing an American-born woman. She remembers him saying: "In my country, women can't behave like this to men!"

Literature on the subject goes beyond mere sexual discrimination. It supports the view that sexual harassment is common in many countries. The Harvard International Law Journal reported in 1992: "Sexual harassment is a pervasive problem in the Japanese workplace." In 1991, IABC Communication World reported that in Mexico, "sexual harassment has been recognized as a problem, but is accepted in our culture where many men consider themselves superior over women... " The same source reported that a national survey in Australia revealed one in four Australian women suffered from sexual harassment at work. Sexual harassment also is happening in Africa. Pratt says when he read the 1992 deposition testimony by a Nigerian woman in preparation for a sexual harassment case, he concluded that it's common in Nigeria—in fact expected—that male supervisors can have sexual access to female subordinates.

If sexual discrimination, including sexual harassment, is the norm in some cultures, should it be ignored when it occurs? In the book "Essentials of Business Ethics," edited by Peter Madsen and Jay Shafritz, one respected contributor, Norman Bowie, states that he believes universal ethics do exist that should guide business conduct. However, they often aren't obvious, and may be difficult to decipher. Probably every culture would say it believes in, and upholds, the respect and dignity of every human being. It's hard to imagine a society that would openly condone sexual harassment. "The Essentials of Business Ethics" states: "Such moral rules are not relative; they simply are not practiced universally.... However, multinational corporations are obligated to follow these moral rules."

In fact, the few incidents of sexual misconduct in international situations that we heard about were frequently resolved once the employees were informed that the women in question were offended by the behavior. Senior HR executives from several companies concluded that these incidents often are caused by lack of awareness of cultural differences—they aren't malevolent in nature. Once an explanation is offered and the woman's perspective is explained, the male (the usual perpetrator) is frequently surprised: He's not aware that his behavior could cause such a degree of anxiety or uneasiness. The universal ethic—not to offend—seems to transcend the customary behavior and interaction of a particular culture.

On the other hand, perhaps it isn't so innocent or simplistic. In at least two incidents we heard about, the offender was clearly told that his behavior was unacceptable. The Middle Eastern employee accused of sexual harassment was told—in no uncertain terms—that to continue working for his employer he would have to conform to treating women as total equals, or be terminated. Perhaps the explicit or implied threat of losing a job or a contract results in a change in behavior more often than the desire not to offend. The excuse that it was a cultural misunderstanding and totally unintended, may be just that—an excuse.

Regardless of personal values and beliefs, the employees in question were motivated to change their behavior to conform to the standards that were expected by the company. Most of the organizations we interviewed have explicitly stated values and policies regarding sexual harassment that are maintained worldwide. Several senior HR executives emphasized workplaces should be free of harassment for all their employees. PPG Industries' Krock shares a viewpoint that's typical of his HR peers: "[Sexual harassment] isn't only contrary to our U.S. law, it's contrary to the policies established by PPG Industries.... We don't believe that employees can operate effectively if they don't feel safe."

Consider the legal and business implications of international sexual harassment.
Do the laws worldwide, and in the United States, support companies' internal policies against sexual harassment? The U.S. laws that govern sexual harassment are covered under Section 109 for both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Section 109 addresses two distinct issues: 1) circumstances in which American and American-controlled employers can be held liable for discrimination that occurs abroad; and 2) circumstances in which foreign employers can be held liable within the United States.

If sexual harassment occurs abroad, American and American-controlled corporations will be covered under Title VII. However, significant interpretation of the law occurs when determining if the company is American-controlled. Section 109 establishes four factors to consider in interpreting whether a company is, or isn't American-controlled. Not all four factors need to be present in all cases:

  • Interrelation of operations
  • Common management
  • Centralized control of labor relations
  • Common ownership or financial control of employer and the foreign corporation.

If a workplace is located in the United States, Title VII and ADA apply to a foreign employer when it discriminates within the United States, except when that individual(s) is protected by a Friendship, Commerce and Navigation (FCN) treaty. (The FCN treaty grants jurisdiction to one country over another country's corporation, and vice versa.)

In either case, abroad or within the United States, Section 109 doesn't explicitly discuss sexual harassment, although sexual harassment is a part of Title VII. The sexual harassment guidelines that have been issued in this country, increasingly familiar to U.S. employees, have no counterpart in Section 109.

Furthermore, as we mentioned earlier, in most countries there are no laws protecting against sexual harassment in the workplace. A 1992 article published in the International Labour Review revealed that in a study of 23 industrialized countries, only nine had statutes that specifically define or mention the term sexual harassment—Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany (Berlin), New Zealand, Spain, Sweden and the United States. The author, Robert Husbands—of the International Labour Organization, based in Geneva, Switzerland—says that the law is in a state of evolution in most of the 23 countries he studied, and that different legal approaches reflect different cultural attitudes and legal systems. In 1994, the European Parliament adopted a resolution to enact legislation obliging employers to "appoint an in-house counselor to deal with cases of sexual harassment." (Belgium is the only European Community country currently with specific legislation on confidential counselors.) This builds on the European Commission's 1991 Code of Practice to define and combat sexual harassment.

In addition, a November 1992 article in The New York Times said: "Legislators in some countries are also reluctant to go too far toward what they see as the desexualization of the United States." When cultures accept and value gender familiarity and unequal roles, it may be difficult to prohibit sexual harassment at work.

The ramifications of sexual harassment when it occurs cross-culturally are more confusing and difficult from both an emotional and legal standpoint. From a business perspective, it's an extremely important area to explore and one that has significant cost implications. With many HR concerns, the human costs of sexual harassment can be high because they directly translate into losses from absenteeism, dissatisfaction and low productivity.

The global nature of the problem adds another cost—expatriate employees are expensive employees. They tend to be high-level and require a great deal of money to support in relocation, schooling their children, tax differences and training, to name just a few. The average expatriate may take approximately $300,000 to replace. When we lose one to a sexual-harassment incident, it's a loss that's costly.

One question mysteriously looms on the horizon of global business: When the practices and laws of two cultures clash, which will apply? This is a question which, apparently, hasn't been widely tested. Perhaps it hasn't even been raised—as some of the organizations we interviewed implied.

It's difficult to believe that a problem that has been so widespread within the United States isn't a problem elsewhere, but the complexities of intercultural socialization blur the lines of what is proper and what is improper. It's HR's job to understand the associated risks when business personnel travel out of—or into—the United States. We also must make training a priority. If our expatriates don't even know which side of the road they'll be driving on when they go abroad on business (or which side of the road their foreign visitors are used to traveling on when they come to the United States), how can we possibly expect them to know what the requirements are regarding intercultural business relationships and the potential for sexually harassing behavior? It's our job to inform our people. Only then can we be sure that the road to international business is a safe one.

Personnel Journal, April 1996, Vol. 75, No. 4, pp. 91-97.