Workplace Sexual Harassment: Anomaly or Epidemic?

Between 2010 and 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received more than 28,000 harassment charges and companies paid $125 million in sexual harassment penalties.

I walked into…the recovery room and one of the anesthesiologists attending was there… And I walk in and he goes, ‘What’s that sexy thing you’re wearing underneath your shirt?’ …my reaction was that I thought that was inappropriate and a sexist comment. He said, ‘That was a compliment…Lighten up…’ It just offended the hell out of me and I don’t know if I’m wrong. Am I being over-sensitive?” (Hinze, S.W. (2004). “Am I being oversensitive: Women’s experience of sexual harassment during medical training,” Health: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness and Medicine, 8(1): (p. 110). This was one woman’s experience while in residency at a medical facility. Her experience is not unusual, and recent media coverage of sexual harassment shows it may be a larger problem than anyone suspected.

Between 2010 and 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) received more than 28,000 harassment charges and companies paid $125 million in sexual harassment penalties. The US Merit System Protection Board estimates that 40 to 70 percent of woman and 13 to 31 percent of men experience some form of sexual harassment in the workplace (The wide numerical value range is attributed to variances in data collection methodologies; US Merit System Protection Board. One study showed that sexual harassment costs companies $22,500 per (targeted) person in lost productivity alone (Willness, C.R., Steel, P.,  & Lee, K. (2007). “A meta-analysis of the antecedents and consequences of workplace sexual harassment,” Personnel Psychology, 60, 127–162). Yet in spite of the penalties paid, harassment behaviors still occur at an alarming rate. Most recently, the entertainment industry has experienced broad exposure of hidden incidents.

Sexual Harassment Can Thrive in the Wrong Culture

Sexual harassment reporting rates are between 6 percent and 25 percent. Several organizational factors influence harassment prevalence and reporting frequency. Organizational climate and culture, leadership tolerance for harassment, observable response to harassment, the victim’s perceptions of the experience, and fear of retaliation all play a part in harassment prevalence and a victim’s disclosure decision (Denison, D. R. (1996). “What is the difference between organizational culture and organizational climate: A native’s point of view on a decade of paradigm wars,” Academy of Management Review, 21(3), 619-654). Climate and culture influence harassment frequency (Willness, Steel & Lee, 2007) and reporting. When victims experience a climate of (harassment) intolerance, they are more likely to report harassment incidents.

Zero Tolerance

When victims believe it is NOT futile to report an incident, they are more likely to report it. For example, if an organization declares a “Zero Tolerance” harassment policy and the leadership actually believes and demonstrates this policy, victims are more likely to report incidents than if the policy is merely words on a piece of paper or plastic card. When victims are satisfied with the internal handling of their complaint, they are less likely to seek remedies externally. Companies cannot claim ignorance as a liability defense (Faragher v. City of Boca Raton. (1998), 524 U.S. 775; Burlington Industries, Inc. v. Ellerth. (1998), 542 U.S. 742, 765). Therefore, organizations must establish and declare clear harassment policies that include reporting and investigation procedures, and they should shape a Culture of Voice to encourage full disclosure as a long-term prevention strategy.

The Most Likely Victims

The two most common harassment target types are: (1) the desirable and (2) the stereotypical deviant (Berdahl, J. L. (2007) “The sexual harassment of uppity women,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(2), 425-437). Historically, it was believed that women or men with appealing physical characteristics were the typical targets for sexual harassment. However, research shows that this is not necessarily the case. In fact, according to Berdahl, woman in male-dominated jobs and organizations are more likely to experience sexual harassment than men in the same environment. This study showed that sexual harassment toward women was not necessarily about sexual arousal, but rather about power domination and assertion to keep women in their proper places. According to Berdahl, “by implication, this suggests that sexual harassment is driven not out of desire for women who meet feminine ideals but out of a desire to punish” those who do not fit the stereotypical characteristics (p. 434).

The Impact

Sexual harassment has both work and psychological impact and disrupts individual, group, and organizational life. Job satisfaction, job commitment, work commitment, and interpersonal work relationships are affected most by incidents of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment targets show reduced job satisfaction overall and an increased intention to leave an organization. However, approximately 81 percent of harassment victims remain at their job (Lundberg-Love P, Marmion S. (2003). “Sexual harassment in the private sector”; Paludi M, Paludi CA, Jr. (Eds.), “Academic and workplace sexual harassment: A handbook of cultural, social science, management, and legal perspectives” (pp. 77–101). Westport, CT: Praeger/Greenwood). The most likely reason is financial dependency.

One study showed that of the 63 percent of victims who sought help after harassment, 93 percent experienced negative physical symptoms and 73 percent experienced emotional distress such as anger and increased anxiety (Gutek, B. A., & Koss, M. P. (1993). “Changed women and changed organizations: Consequences of and coping with sexual harassment,” Journal of Vocational Behavior, 42, 28-48). One study showed that of the 447 female respondents, “64 percent said the harassment lasted between one week and six months, 66 percent rated the incident as “offensive or “extremely offensive,” 56 percent reported the incident as “upsetting” or “extremely upsetting,” and 83 percent reported that they had to continue working with the perpetrator” (Schneider, K, T., Swan, S. & Fitgerald, L. F., (1997). “Job-related and psychological effects of sexual harassment in the workplace: Empirical evidence from two organizations,” Journal of Applied Psychology, 82(3), 401-415P). In addition to victim suffering, organizations also pay a price for harassment behavior.

Studies show that only a small percentage of victims actually report it at all or not swiftly if they do report it. For example, in one study, only 25 percent of university employees who experienced sexual harassment actually reported it (Menon, J. A., Shilalukey Ngoma, M. P., Siziya, S., Musepa, M., Malungo, J., & Serpell, R. (2011). “Sexual harassment in academia: Perception, understanding and reporting of sexual harassment in a Southern African university,” Journal of Peace, Gender and Developmental Studies, 1, 8-14).

Dealing With Sexual Harassment: The Victim’s Response

Several individual factors influence a victim’s decision to report a sexual harassment incident:

  • Self-blame
  • Low self-esteem and life satisfaction
  • Traditional gender-role beliefs
  • Socio-economic status
  • Harassment severity and duration
  • Perpetrator status

The personal factors above influence whether victims report incidents of sexual harassment. Some studies (Hinze, 2004) show that victims often dismiss the incident as “small stuff,” and many fear retaliation or being labeled as “too sensitive.” According to Hinze, one female victim explained her reporting decision this way, “If I say something, they’re going to go, ‘Whoa, she’s a real b---h, she’s sure uptight, she’s sure …’. (p. 104). According to Quinn, most victims deal with sexual harassment by downplaying it or dismissing the behavior. Victims are inclined to report incidents when they believe the organization will not punish them for voicing their experience (Quinn, B. (2000). “The paradox of complaining: Law, humor, and harassment in the

everyday work world,” Law and Social Inquiry: Journal of the American Bar

Foundation, 25(4), 1151–85).

Preventing Sexual Harassment

An organizational climate of tolerance is the major contributor to sexual harassment. Leadership practices contribute to organizational climate and culture. The best harassment prevention strategy is threefold:

  1. Clear anti-harassment policies
    1. Clear and formal reporting and investigation mechanisms in place and known to every employee.
  2. Shape and sustain a Culture of Voice
  3. Develop all leaders to be able to prevent and intervene using legal, behavioral, and procedural harassment responsiveness

Organizations must have strict, crystal clear harassment investigation, reporting, and resolution procedures, as well as a Zero Tolerance policy. A Zero Tolerance policy is crystal clear and leaves no room for interpretation.

A Culture of Voice is one where employees know their voices have merit. Leaders are developed to encourage voice and minimize practices that elicit silence. Culture of Voice and Silence can be measured using the Silence Voice Index (SVI), and Culture of Voice workshops can develop leaders capable of preventing harassment.

Dr. Rob Bogosian is founder and principal at RVB Associates, Inc. He has been featured in Business Insider, CNN Money, Fortune Magazine, The Economist, Rutgers University Business Journal, CEO Magazine, and Entrepreneur Magazine, and is co-author of “Breaking Corporate Silence.”


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