Sexual harassment in the workplace is so last century -- or so it seemed until the Herman Cain scandal made national headlines of the sort this hot-potato issue hasn't seen in years.
But out of sight doesn't mean out of mind. While the number of harassment complaints from employees continues to drop, a recent poll found that two-thirds of Americans still view it as a workplace problem, and one in four working women polled reported having been sexually harassed at least once on the job.
Since it first began sparking widespread outrage in the late 1980s, sexual harassment has ridden the tide of changing times, say consultants and human resources executives. Both women and men are much more willing to speak up when they are being bothered by peers. Same-sex complaints are on the rise, which can mean anything from one woman hitting on another to a straight man questioning a co-worker's masculinity. The Internet and e-mail are playing a significant role, both as tools by harassers to send unwanted images to co-workers and as a means of tracking and proving bad behavior.
There's also a generation gap in attitude toward the threat of being harassed, say employers and trainers who have noticed that workers in their 20s and early 30s don't seem that bothered by the prospect. In fact, they're trying to figure out where the boundaries are for themselves.
"Millennials, who have grown up with the Internet, are finding they need to conform their humor and language quite a bit when they enter a mixed-age workplace," said Fran Sepler, a Twin Cities corporate trainer who investigates 50 sex-harassment cases a year.
Robert Weber, co-founder and senior vice president of new products for W3i, a 100-employee distribution and monetization network for app developers based in St. Cloud, said he's noticed some of his younger workers seem to find the harassment-training video every new employee must watch to be a waste of time.
"Their attitude is, why can't we all just be held accountable for our actions?" he said. "Our more experienced workers know it's something every company has to do."
While several W3i employees said harassment is a serious concern, they admitted they didn't spend a lot of time thinking about it because they're more familiar with their rights, in part because training has become rote throughout the working world.
"It's not on our minds, but we're aware of what it is and what the consequences are," said Julie Karkela, 22.
Mark Weinmann, 25, recalls first learning of the issue when he had to watch "an awful video" when he got his first job while in high school.
"It's a generational thing," he said. "Our grandparents worked at a time when harassment was tolerated. Our parents taught us a little differently."
The biggest change Sepler has observed has more to do with technology than people.
"There's a prevalence of sexually explicit, offensive or pornographic images being sent around as e-mail attachments by people who assume they will be welcome," she said. "When someone gets offended, the sender is taken aback."
E-mails and other electronic records have also made it easier to avoid having to evaluate one person's word against another's.
"More often than not, there's a trail of e-mails and texts," she said.
Telling on the boss still tough
In Minnesota (a leader in making workplace harassment illegal, even before the Human Rights Act made it a federal crime), workplace sexual-harassment complaint tallies have remained constant since 2000, averaging about 11 percent of total workplace complaints. But nationally, charges of sexual harassment filed with rights agencies so far in 2011 total 8,341, a substantial drop from 13,867 in 2008, according to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data combining federal, state and local numbers.
The decrease is due, in part, to less harassment occurring, companies becoming more effective in handling complaints internally and employees becoming more adept at addressing peer-to-peer harassment themselves, Sepler said. But, she added, there's a "hidden economy" of complaints that never make it out the office's front door.
Ninety percent of Sepler's cases are resolved off the books, she said: "Employers are getting better at responding promptly so they don't turn into legal claims."
At least one thing hasn't changed much: How the power dynamic affects a victim's willingness to come forward.
Employees are still reluctant to speak up when the harassment comes from a superior, especially during a recession, she said:
"People are waiting longer to complain in this economy, or not complaining at all, because they don't want to risk the possibility they'll have to find a new job."
Asked if they'd be reluctant to report a superior for making the kind of blatant advances Herman Cain is accused of, the young group from W3i said they would not.
"I feel like there are enough controls in place, enough checks and balances, that people don't get let go for that kind of whistleblowing," Weinmann said.
Melissa Kron, human resources director for W3i, identified another trend -- being more inclusive of other types of harassment in company training.
"Companies in general don't call it sexual harassment training anymore," Kron said. "We define it much more broadly to include harassment in any form."
Rebecca Roloff, CEO of the Minneapolis YWCA, first entered the workforce in 1967 and has been employed by major corporations as well as in the nonprofit world. "When I think back, there was a certain naiveté of what a healthy workplace was," Roloff said. "Many of us working women had mothers who did not work outside of the home so we didn't know what to expect. It's clearly less acceptable now than it was when I began my career, and I do think there is less of it going on."
Although one-fourth of working women in the new poll reported having been harassed on the job, that figure was one-third 20 years ago. The 25 percent of men in the early 1990s who said they may have done or said something inappropriate to female co-workers has dropped to just 10 percent.
"We're much more certain about what we have a right to object to today," Sepler said.
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046