John Pilkington’s boss wouldn’t take no for an answer.
During more than two years as a food runner at an upscale steakhouse in Scottsdale, Ariz., Pilkington says his male supervisor groped, fondled and otherwise sexually harassed him more than a dozen times.
“It was very embarrassing,” Pilkington said. “I felt like I had to do something because the situation was just so bad.”
Now Pilkington, a married father of two, is the star witness in a federal lawsuit against Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar and one of a growing number of men claiming they are victims of sexual harassment in the workplace.
From 1990 to 2009, the percentage of sexual harassment claims filed by men has doubled from 8 percent to 16 percent of all claims, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Women still file the overwhelming majority of sexual harassment claims with the EEOC and state and local agencies. But lawyers at the commission say they’ve noticed the increase in complaints by men — more than 2,000 were filed in 2009 out of about 12,700 cases.
Male claims made up about 12 percent of all cases a decade ago, but the percentage has continued to rise even as the overall number of sexual harassment complaints has declined. And last year, the percentage of lawsuits the EEOC filed on behalf of male victims hit an all-time high, making up 14 percent of all cases.
“It’s certainly possible that there’s more sexual harassment of men going on, but it could just be that more men are coming forward and complaining about it,” said Ernest Haffner, an attorney in the EEOC’s Office of Legal Counsel.
While some cases allege harassment by female supervisors or co-workers, most charges involve men harassing other men. Sometimes it’s unwelcome romantic advances. Other times, men are picked on because they are gay, perceived as being gay or not considered masculine enough for the work setting.
In the past, some employers might have shrugged off such antics as “boys will be boys” horseplay or fraternity-type behavior. But the EEOC has been filing more lawsuits involving male victims, saying it wants to send a message that such behavior is unacceptable and unlawful.
In November, for example, the Cheesecake Factory restaurant chain agreed to pay $345,000 to six male employees who claimed they were repeatedly sexually assaulted by a group of male kitchen staffers at a Phoenix-area restaurant.
The EEOC said the abusers would drag some victims kicking and screaming into a walk-in refrigerator, touching and grinding against the victims’ genitals and take turns simulating rape. The company denied the allegations but agreed to make a financial settlement and educate its employees and managers about sexual harassment.
Susan Strauss, a consultant who advises companies about how to avoid sexual harassment in the workplace, said she’s seeing more cases in which men are subject to a sexualized form of hazing.
“If you don’t fit the masculine stereotype or are viewed as effeminate, you get picked on in a sexual way to demean you,” Strauss said.
Cases involving women making unwanted advances toward men may also be rising as women make up a growing part of the work force. Last year, the Regal Entertainment Group, which operates a national chain of movie theaters, agreed to pay $175,000 to settle a lawsuit by a male employee who claimed a female co-worker repeatedly grabbed his crotch at work.
When the employee complained to his supervisor and the theater’s then-general manager, he claims, she failed to stop the harassment and instead retaliated against the victim with unfair discipline and lower performance evaluations.
The number of cases filed by men has grown steadily since a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1998 held that same-sex harassment is a valid claim under federal anti-discrimination laws. That ruling involved an offshore oil rig worker who said he was subject to humiliating sex-related treatment by other workers, including being sodomized in the shower with a bar of soap.
In Pilkington’s case, he claims the restaurant’s chef would grope and pinch his genitals or grab his backside when Pilkington walked to the kitchen or stock room. Despite his complaints to the restaurant’s operating partner, he says the conduct didn’t stop.
After one incident, Pilkington lost his composure and yelled at the chef, making a scene. Days later, he was fired — an action he claims was retaliation for his complaints. An EEOC lawsuit on behalf of Pilkington and three other current and former employees is pending.
“I think maybe it’s just harder for males to come out and file a complaint because of how embarrassing it is,” Pilkington said. “When I talk about it I get this nauseous feeling in my stomach.”
The restaurant has denied the charges. In a statement, the company that owns Fleming’s said the restaurant “has always been committed to providing a safe and healthy workplace free of harassment for all of its associates.”
Many victims are hesitant to come forward because they are afraid of being considered unmanly or being derided by co-workers, said Mary Jo O’Neill, a regional attorney in the EEOC’s Phoenix District office.
“All sexual harassment victims feel humiliated, lacking control and power,” O’Neill said. “This has a different twist because everyone expects that they would be able to handle it and take care of it themselves.”
Pilkington has since moved on to another job. While he is embarrassed by the publicity his case has received, he says it was the right thing to do. The EEOC lawsuit seeks damages for him and other workers alleging harassment, along with back pay and compensatory and punitive damages.