As the general manager of Southern Life Insurance’s Richmond, Virginia, office, you are responsible for the day-to-day operations of the office, which includes both sales management and personnel management. Since becoming the general manager in 2004, you have expanded the office, hiring nine new people in the last three years to fill roles in both insurance sales and office support. You now supervise 18 employees, all of whom have different responsibilities.
As a result of the expansion, the Richmond, Virginia, office has gradually become a top seller of insurance for Southern. Sales have steadily increased over the years, and this year’s sales from your office are expected to top $22 million.
Although the office is succeeding in sales and generating revenue, the transition to having larger sales and support staffs has been challenging to manage at times. The “original” nine sales representatives (OSRs) are a cohesive group that has been working together for over a decade. Their relationships in the office have translated into friendships outside the office. They belong to the same country club, their wives are in the same civic organization, and their children attend the same private school. Their camaraderie is evident, and although their behavior in the office is sometimes rowdy, you’ve had no cause to doubt their work ethic or their character. In fact, you’ve socialized with these sales reps on occasion, sometimes meeting after work for a drink or going to a business function together.
The more recent hires, however, reflect changing workforce demographics and, for the first time, the Richmond office has several female sales representatives. The addition of women to the sales staff has not seemed to affect the behavior or attitudes of the OSRs, and this is where recent complaints of sexual harassment appear to be rooted.
Specifically, three of the new sales representatives have complained to you privately and independently about the behavior of the OSRs. The primary offensive behavior each sales rep cited was telling of off-color jokes and sexually explicit stories in the office. Each of these female reps had personally heard different jokes and different stories, and all three indicated that exposure to these jokes and stories in the office made them feel alienated and embarrassed. Although none of the reps wanted to make a formal complaint of sexual harassment, they do want the behaviors to end.
You know the new sales reps are telling the truth; you’ve actually heard these jokes and stories (as well as others!) over the years, but had never given them a second thought. Their telling always seemed to be a good way to relieve stress and to promote sales rep bonding.
If your new sales reps are offended, though, you realize that there is a problem. After reviewing Southern’s policy on sexual harassment (see below) and talking with a representative from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), you realize that you have to take action because the behavior of the OSRs is creating a hostile work environment that is explicitly forbidden by federal and state law as well as company policy. Although you must take some action, you have a good deal of flexibility as to how you address this issue.
Because the jokes and stories represent a lesser form of sexual harassment (i.e., “condition of work” harassment rather than “quid pro quo” harassment), you infer that the main cause of this behavior is ignorance. Specifically, the OSRs probably do not realize that their talk is offensive to and embarrassing for the female sales reps. So, you decide that the best resolution to this issue is to prepare a statement for your employees presenting your office policy about sexual harassment. You want this statement to be the first step in promoting a more positive environment for everyone in the office.
Southern Life Insurance Company
Sexual Harassment Policy*
We do not tolerate any form of workplace harassment, regardless of whether someone is an employee or a non-employee or whether he or she is on Southern’s premises, working off-site or at an off-site business function.
Examples of harassing and intimidating behavior include:
- Unwanted physical contact
- Displaying offensive material or telling offensive jokes
- Threats of termination or lost opportunities based on race, color, gender, religion, age, national origin, disability, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, ancestry or citizenship status
- Conduct of a sexual, racial or other nature that interferes with someone’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment
- Threatened or actual violence
You should immediately report any acts of harassment. Southern will protect from retaliation anyone who in good faith reports harassment or who provides information in an investigation.
*This policy is from The Hartford insurance company’s Code of Ethics and Business Conduct.
Understanding Sexual Harassment
For a general overview of sexual harassment, visit
For a specific definition and description of sexual harassment, visit
Write an informative memo to your sales and support staff members at the Richmond office that addresses the sexual harassment problem. To comply with both federal and state laws and Southern’s company policy, your memo needs to educate the staff about sexual harassment and underscore the company’s anti-harassment policies, point out the problematic behaviors that have been reported, and describe the behavioral changes needed to eliminate the hostile work environment in the office. Although you clearly need to bring about changes in the behavior of the OSRs and educate everyone about the nature of sexual harassment, you want to do so in a way that will not drive a wedge between experienced and newer employees or male and female members of your staff. Rather, you want to use this situation as an opportunity to bring everyone together in a positive way. Further, while being firm about stopping harassing behaviors in the office, you want to discuss this matter in a way that does not alienate or embarrass any member of the staff.
*Case developed and submitted by Cynthia E. Conn, Rawls College of Business, Texas Tech University