More Than A Tune-Up

THE WOMAN WE'LL CALL AMY GOT the picture soon after she took a job at the Mitsubishi plant several months ago. She'd heard all the accusations of sexual harassment--lewd comments, explicit photos, groping of women on the assembly line--at the Normal, Ill., auto factory. But after three years of lawsuits and bad publicity at Mitsubishi, she figured that that stuff was ancient history. She learned otherwise. One worker asked her to tuck in her shirt ""so I can see your ass.'' Another told her, on a daily basis, ""I want to stick you.'' Then there was the guy who asked her to pick up a battery bracket. When she did, he told her, ""I just wanted you to bend over the car so I could do you like a man.'' After Amy reported the men to Mitsubishi, a male co-worker who was close to her harassers warned her that the guys had told him they ""won't hold anything back.'' If push came to shove, he said, they would invent stories about her own sexual exploits to take the heat off themselves.

Turning around one of the most infamous workplaces in the United States is proving to be harder than anyone expected. A NEWSWEEK investigation suggests that the company has made more serious reforms than its critics might expect. Mitsubishi hired Lynn Martin, former labor secretary to George Bush, to propose reforms for the plant. Both the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the news media have treated that move as window dressing. NEWSWEEK'S reporting--including unprecedented access to the workings of Martin's task force--suggests that it has been anything but. Mitsubishi's policies on sexual harassment are now far more stringent than those of most Fortune 500 companies. The company launched a host of detailed training and management reforms and fired 16 flagrant offenders.

But stopping the public humiliation of women by groups of men, it turns out, was the easy part. The efforts have driven harassment into the shadows, where some men continue to deliver their insults in a one-on-one fashion that many women find even more menacing. ""Guys used to yell across the work area, "Nice tits!' '' says ""Denise,'' who can't afford to quit her $50,000-a-year job. ""Now they come over and say it to your face.'' The mutating of harassment at Mitsubishi into subtler forms leaves the company with a far tougher task. Bosses can't observe and stamp out secretive mistreatment. Instead Mitsubishi must transform its culture to turn itself into the kind of workplace where such things don't occur.

Chances are you've heard about the Mitsubishi plant only because of two lawsuits filed on behalf of women workers. Three months ago Mitsubishi agreed to pay $9.5 million to 27 women who had filed a harassment suit in 1994. The federal EEOC is still pressing a second suit for some 300 women at the plant. In September the EEOC charged that between 1988 and 1993 Mitsubishi had tolerated boorish, even terrifying behavior by some 400 men who resented the women's presence. Men allegedly used air guns to shoot painful blasts at women's chests and crotches. Others frequently grabbed women by their breasts, simulated masturbation or exposed themselves. One worker allegedly forced a woman's legs apart and threatened to sodomize her. The EEOC said the company had ""discouraged complaints and permitted retaliation against women who dared to complain.'' Among the most chilling allegations: as supervisors idly listened, one man said he would force a woman to have sex with him--before he killed her. Mitsubishi denies fostering a climate of abuse. But the company does not deny that serious harassment occurred.

Mitsubishi's initial efforts to address the problem were ham-handed: after the EEOC filed its suit last year, Mitsubishi bused about 3,000 employees to an orchestrated protest outside the agency's office in downtown Chicago. That only added to the perception that Mitsubishi didn't care. Three weeks later, Mitsubishi wised up and hired Martin.

What her team found was a deeply troubled corporate culture whose ills went well beyond harassment. The company's sole focus was on cars, with scant attention to the people who built them. The plant was a technological marvel that had stuffed crucial workplace issues into the closet. The personnel department was an understaffed shell with little access to Mitsubishi's top brass. Training to combat sexual harassment was clearly inadequate--but so was the training in a whole range of supervisory skills, such as preparing new managers for the factory floor. Martin's first move, NEWSWEEK has learned, was to demand not just oversight of Mitsubishi's harassment policies but also of an ambitious plan for a host of worker-friendly changes.

At Martin's prodding, Mitsubishi has launched 34 detailed reforms, with strict deadlines for each. Some, like ""Update the employee handbook annually,'' are no-brainers. But others will profoundly change what it means to work at Mitsubishi--especially for women. Requirements that supervisors rotate between day and night shifts will be softened, making it easier for women with children to advance. Pretax payroll deductions for child care now lower the cost burden on working mothers. After many employees told a polltaker hired by Martin that they thought promotions were handled through an old boys' network, the company began posting job openings on bulletin boards.

Mitsubishi has focused its most intense scrutiny not on line workers but on their supervisors. Martin says her original plan, which she now calls naive, was to try to change male employees' attitudes toward women. She later chose to steer the company toward harder-edged incentives: strict punishments for wrongdoers and financial rewards for bosses who crack down on harassment. ""Changing attitudes is wonderful if you've got 40, 50, maybe 1,000 years,'' Martin says. ""But if you want to see improvements before you die, you have to change behavior.'' Workers must attend eight hours of anti-harassment classes, but supervisors now must spend 99 hours learning how to curb misbehavior and resolve conflicts, among other skills. Managers' raises will be based in part on how they've handled harassment issues. The point is to reach the work force through newly sensitized supervisors who have plenty to gain if their subordinates shape up--and plenty to lose if they don't.

Yet for all the company's efforts, some women say not enough has changed. Many remain afraid to complain when things get out of hand. They've seen other women ostracized, or threatened, for speaking up. At the same time, there's no unanimity about what should be done. Some say they don't want their harassers fired, because even jerks have children and mortgages. They volunteer that this is, after all, a factory floor. ""I just want him told he needs to have a little more respect for his co-workers,'' ""Cathy'' says of one man. Others complain that some men don't take lesser discipline seriously. ""I'm right back where I was,'' says ""Beth'' of her tormentor, a man who, the company assures her, has been sanctioned for his acts. ""He's still here, and I'm still in a hostile environment.'' As for the training classes, Beth says she's heard some smart alecks say, ""Now I know how to do it and not get caught!''

Mitsubishi responds that eradicating harassment will be a long slog. ""We have turned a corner, but we're still a work in progress,'' says Gloria-Jeanne Davis, who was hired from a local university's affirmative-action program to run a new company office that investigates harassment complaints. ""We have zero tolerance, but I don't want that confused with zero occurrences.'' Davis's frustration is that more women won't trust her enough to complain. She can't always recommend instant punishment, she says, because allegations must first be verified. Nor, for liability reasons, can Mitsubishi publicize the names of employees and their punishments. These legal niceties keep some women in the plant from knowing that in addition to the 16 firings, men have had pay docked, job grades reduced and career paths imperiled by formal findings of harassment.

Mitsubishi says it now resolves 97 percent of all complaints within 30 days. Some move much faster. Kim Kinder, a nine-year veteran of the company, complained to her supervisor several weeks ago about harassment by a co-worker. The supervisor contacted Davis's office. After witnesses corroborated Kinder's charge, the alleged offender was moved to another work area the next morning. Davis's office even called Kinder to double-check that the problem had been resolved. Kinder says she's pleased with a response that was both thorough and fast. She adds that she likes her job and the others in her group. ""Most people have common courtesy,'' she says. ""If you find something offensive, they excuse themselves and the conversation goes on.''

Kinder's experience shows what can happen when a worker and a company take on a common foe. But the EEOC, which views much of the effort at Mitsubishi as mere lip service, says there's been too little of that. ""We continue to receive complaints about sexual harassment and retaliation at the plant,'' says John Hendrickson, the agency's regional attorney in Chicago. Nor can Mitsubishi shake its run of bad PR. Late last month came the embarrassing resignation of its vice president for human resources, Art Zintek. He'd been brought in only six months earlier to help implement reforms. Zintek's departure spawned press reports speculating that he had met resistance. But a source at the plant says the veep left for more complex reasons, some of them personal. Zintek told NEWSWEEK that he isn't at liberty to discuss his resignation.

Amy, who is not part of the EEOC lawsuit, doesn't know what to make of Mitsubishi's reforms. ""The company told me they took action,'' she says. ""One of the men is better now. Another is still something, I'll tell you.'' The threatened retaliation, which she also reported, has not materialized. Lynn Martin says that trying to prevent harassment cases like Amy's--""the one-to-one stuff''--frustrates her the most. What will Martin say to Amy if the two ever meet on the streets of Normal? ""I can't tell her we have a remedy all locked in,'' Martin says. ""But I can tell her we've at least begun.'' Just ask the 16 guys who've already squandered careers at Mitsubishi.

Dec. 15, 1994: Accusing Mitsubishi of fostering a climate of sexual harassment, 29 women file a federal lawsuit against the company. The plaintiffs allege that some supervisors ignored or retaliated against women who complained.

April 9, 1996: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission files a class-action suit against Mitsubishi for some 300 women at the Normal, Ill., plant who allegedly were targets of harassment or worked in a hostile environment.

April 22, 1996: Mitsubishi pays to bus 3,000 of its employees to the EEOC office in Chicago to protest the lawsuit.

May 14, 1996: Lynn Martin, former U.S. labor secretary, is hired by Mitsubishi to recommend changes for the 4,000 employees at the auto plant.

Feb. 12, 1997: Martin proposes 34 reforms to prevent sexual harassment and to improve the workplace culture at Mitsubishi. Several of the changes improve conditions for women workers.

Aug. 28, 1997: Mitsubishi settles the 1994 lawsuit with 27 of the 29 women for $9.5 million. The agreement does not involve any finding of wrongdoing.

Today: The EEOC lawsuit remains unresolved. The company continues to implement Martin's recommendations.

More Than A Tune-Up | News
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