Sexual Harassment

Sexual HarassmentSexual harassment is behavior of a sexual nature that harms those exposed to it. The behavior may be intentional or unintentional, aimed at an individual or group, initiated by an individual or group, initiated by employees or outside parties such as customers, initiated by men or women, and targeted at men or women. Many countries have laws designating certain forms of sexual behavior at work as illegal sexual harassment. Although both men and women can be targets of sexual harassment, women are overwhelmingly more likely than men to be targeted. Estimates of the sexual harassment targeted at women range from 40 percent to 85 percent, whereas estimates for men are around 15 percent. It is important to note, however, that while most harassers are men, most men are not harassers. Individuals who experience sexual harassment often suffer negative emotional consequences (such as fear) and psychological consequences (such as depression).

Sexual harassment often has a substantial impact on career development. The career development of targets of harassment can be affected in a variety of ways. For example, targets of harassment may become less dedicated to their job, be denied promotions or wage increases, leave an organization voluntarily to escape the behavior, or even be fired from an organization for failure to comply with sexual advances or for reporting such advances. The career development of sexual harassers may also be affected negatively. For example, harassers working in organizations with a low tolerance for sexual harassment are likely to be disciplined, up to and including termination. Furthermore, in organizations that do not have adequate investigative procedures for dealing with complaints of sexual harassment, individuals accused but not guilty of sexual harassment may suffer negative career consequences.

Sexual Harassment from the Legal Perspective

Two Types of Sexual Harassment

Discrimination in employment on the basis of gender is prohibited under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act (as amended). Since sexual harassment is based on gender, it is prohibited under Title VII. In accordance with U.S. law, there are two types of sexual harassment: quid pro quo and hostile environment. When sexual conduct is made a condition of employment or used as the basis for employment decisions, it is classified as quid pro quo (“this for that” in Latin). An example of quid pro quo harassment would be a supervisor firing an employee for refusing sexual advances. Another example would be a supervisor increasing the pay of an employee only if unwelcome sexual advances were accepted. The effect of sexual harassment on career development is obvious in such cases of quid pro quo harassment.

Hostile environment sexual harassment is the second form of illegal sexual behavior in the workplace. Such behavior has the purpose or effect of substantially interfering with work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. An example of hostile environment sexual harassment would be one coworker repeatedly telling sexually graphic stories to another who did not want to hear them. Another example would be an employee repeatedly sending pornographic e-mail (e.g., pictures, jokes, or discussion) to other employees who did not want to see it. Most sexual harassment is hostile environment harassment between coworkers. This makes sense in terms of organizational structures: There are many more non-supervisory employees than there are supervisory employees. Thus quid pro quo situations are less likely to occur.

Unwelcome Behavior

Sexual HarassmentIn order for sexual behavior in the workplace to be considered sexual harassment from a legal perspective, it must be unwelcome. Therefore, not all behavior of a sexual nature at work is illegal. For example, many organizations allow employees to engage in consensual workplace romances. One potential problem with these romances is that if the romance ends, one of the parties may continue to make sexual advances, which, although previously welcome, are now unwelcome by the other party. In general, the courts have been reluctant to label targets of harassment as welcoming the behavior. When employees complain about the behavior, stating that it is unwanted, the behavior is considered unwelcome unless there is extensive evidence proving otherwise. Therefore, determining if the sexual behavior meets other criteria is essential in determining if it is illegal.

Severe or Pervasive Behavior

In addition to being unwelcome, sexual behavior must be severe or pervasive to be considered sexual harassment. In other words, asking coworkers to go on a first date when they are not interested, telling one a sexually explicit joke, or making a few comments on a coworker’s sexuality are not likely to be considered severe or pervasive by the courts. However, sexual behavior does not have to result in a nervous breakdown to be considered harassment either.

The experience of Kimberly Ellerth at Burlington Industries, however, demonstrates behavior that is severe and pervasive, thus constituting hostile environment sexual harassment. Ms. Ellerth was subjected to several comments of a sexual nature by her supervisor. For example, he made remarks about her breasts, told her to “loosen up” because he “could make life very hard or very easy” for her, and said that he didn’t have time to talk to her over the phone about a business issue unless she told him what she was wearing. Finally, while rubbing her knee during a promotion interview, he told her that she was not “loose enough.” Hostile environment harassment often results in harassed employees leaving the organization in which the harassment occurred. This can be problematic in terms of career development because it may appear that the employee lacks stability, and thus is not a viable candidate.

Employer Liability

An employer is liable for sexual harassment when it “knew or should have known” about the behavior and did not take appropriate action to remedy the situation. It is relatively easy to determine if an employer knew of a behavior. For example, a waitress at one restaurant told her manager that she did not want to wait on a particular table because the customers were sexually crude with her. He told her to wait on them anyway; when she did, they sexually assaulted her. In this situation, the manager clearly knew about the behavior yet did nothing to change it. In fact, it was allowed to escalate. It is more difficult to determine if an employer “should have known” about sexual harassment. In cases where organizations have not made clear the process for employees to report sexual harassment, they will be less likely to report it. Since such organizations do not receive complaints of harassment, they may claim that harassment does not occur there. However, if there were an effective reporting process, targets would be more likely to report their experiences; thus the organization would know about them. For example, several employees had reported sexual harassment to a manager in the organization, but this manager did not believe it was his duty to either make others in the organization aware of it or address it himself. Essentially, the “should have known” phrase means that employers can still be liable for sexual harassment even when they are ignorant of the harassment.

Causes of Sexual Harassment

Microlevel Explanations

There is very little research on the topic of initiators of sexual harassment. What little research there is, however, indicates that certain types of people are likely to engage in sexual harassment in certain types of situations. For example, men who have a higher likelihood to sexually harass tend to believe in rape myths and hold traditional gender stereotypes. However, despite an inclination to harass, these men typically refrain from doing so when their behavior results in negative repercussions for them such as a written warning or potential for termination. It also appears that sexual harassers can be classified into different categories. For example, some harassers cast a wide net and harass multiple targets on multiple occasions. At the other extreme are harassers who are genuinely interested in pursuing a consensual relationship but do not have the social skills to do so. It should be noted, however, that it is not the harasser’s intention that counts but rather the effect of the behavior on the target or others in the workplace.

Research indicates that sexual harassment is more frequent in occupations in which one gender is in the majority. Examples of predominately male occupations include firefighters, police officers, and blue-collar workers. White-collar professions such as law and investment banking are also male dominated. One explanation for the high levels of sexual harassment in these occupations is that since there are so few women in the occupation, gender becomes a defining characteristic of the workforce. Expectations of women outside the workplace are then carried into the workplace. An example would be that to the extent that women are considered sex objects or passive outside of work, they will be considered as such on the job as well. Thus sexual behavior that might be acceptable in a nightclub or fraternity house is seen as acceptable on the job. Another theory is that sexual harassment in predominately male occupations is a method for maintaining a masculine social identity. Sexual harassment is used to communicate that women are not welcome in the profession, that is, as a method for protecting turf. Sexual harassment can also be used to get women to quit their jobs or to keep them from entering the occupation in the first place.

Recent theorizing on sexual harassment conceptualizes it as a specific form of workplace aggression. Sexual harassment occurs “because of sex”; thus it does not have to be sexually motivated. For example, incidents like those described previously do not occur out of sexual interest but rather as a means of intimidation and often with the explicit intention to harm. Workplaces characterized by sexual harassment often exhibit other forms of aggression such as threats and verbal abuse.

Macrolevel Explanations

One theory regarding sexual harassment is that the power and status differences between men and women in society are carried over into the organizational setting. Accordingly, sexual harassment can be used to maintain the status quo in society. To the extent that sexual harassment hinders the career development of women, women will have less power and status and therefore will be less likely to improve their lot in society.

As stated earlier, employees who are inclined to engage in sexual harassment are more likely to do so in situations allowing them to avoid negative repercussions. Research indicates that cultural aspects influence the occurrence of sexual harassment. For example, if a norm of the organization is for employees to boast about their sexual exploits over the past weekend, employees who are new to the organization are likely to conform to this practice. Similarly, the behavior of top management sets the tone for behavior of other organizational members. Therefore, if top management uses sexual slurs, other employees receive the message that such behavior is accepted, if not encouraged, by the organization.

Structural aspects of organizations, such as hierarchical reporting relationships, have been proposed to contribute to sexual harassment. This theory is plausible because men are more likely than women are to be at higher levels within organizations and to be sexual harassers. Quid pro quo harassment is made possible through organizational hierarchy because it establishes a system in which higher-level employees are responsible for making employment-related decisions regarding lower level employees reporting to them. This structure often offers no system of checks and balances.

Responses to Sexual Harassment

Organizational Responses

Sexual HarassmentStructural aspects of organizations can be modified to minimize sexual harassment. An essential element is to have a strong communication program regarding the issue. Many employees are confused by the concept of sexual harassment. Some believe that merely telling coworkers that “they look nice today” is harassing, while at the other extreme some believe that sexually explicit language is fine as long as there is no physical touching involved. Indeed, a reading of the case law on sexual harassment indicates the complexity of this topic. For example, it is not completely clear at what point sexual behavior at work becomes “severe or pervasive.” Given the intricacies of sexual harassment, employees should receive training on the types of words and behaviors prohibited in the organization. However, they must also be made aware that there is no exhaustive list of behaviors to avoid.

Organizations trying to create structures that minimize sexual harassment should also establish proper processes for reporting claims of sexual harassment and ensure that all employees understand these reporting mechanisms. It is essential that employees be provided with a variety of reporting channels, because they may not feel comfortable speaking about the harassment to a particular individual. Employees reporting harassment should always be allowed to report to someone other than their supervisor, because the supervisor could be the source of harassment. Finally, it is essential from both a legal and career perspective that employees are not retaliated against for reporting sexual harassment.

In addition to ensuring a fair process for employees claiming that they have experienced sexual harassment, it is also essential to ensure a fair process for those accused of harassment. Detailed procedures for investigating sexual harassment complaints must be developed and communicated. Organizations with zero tolerance policies for harassment must be especially thorough when conducting investigations, because employees found to be harassers will be terminated. This job loss may impact the future career development of such employees.

Target Responses

Despite organizational efforts to minimize sexual harassment, it still occurs. Thus targets of harassment must respond to it in some way. Most targets do not want to see their harassers punished; they simply want the harassing behavior to end. The most common response is to ignore the behavior or try to laugh it off. Another passive responsive is to avoid the harasser.

Both ignoring the behavior and avoiding the harasser can have career-related implications. For example, if the behavior is ignored, it is likely to continue. Harassment becomes more stressful as the number of occurrences increases over time. Exposure to consistent stress can result in increased sick leave, inability to concentrate at work, and decreased productivity. Furthermore, such harassment eventually begins to have negative consequences for others in the work area in addition to the intended target of harassment. Rather than ignoring or avoiding the situation, some targets seek social support from friends or relatives. Social support helps alleviate some of the stress of harassment whether or not the target takes further action, but it does not remedy the situation.

Confronting the harasser or reporting it to management or an outside organization is the least common response. Many targets are embarrassed by the situation, intimidated by the harasser, think that their complaint will not be taken seriously, or fear retaliation for reporting. Targets who report their harassment tend to experience higher levels of stress than those who do not. This may be due to the process of going through the investigation and possible rejection by other members of the organization for coming forward. Alternatively, it may be that targets only report the most serious forms of harassment, which are more likely to result in high stress levels. In other words, it is not clear if the harassment leads to stress, which then leads to reporting, or if harassment leads to reporting, which then leads to stress. In conclusion, sexual harassment is a stressful event for those experiencing it regardless of how they respond to it.

See also:


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  8. O’Leary-Kelly, A. M., Paetzold, R. L. and Griffin, R. W. 2000. “Sexual Harassment as Aggressive Behavior: An Actor-based Perspective.” Academy of Management Review 25:372-388.
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