The Power and Reasons Behind Sexual Harassment: An Employer's Guide to Solutions

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The Power and Reasons Behind Sexual Harassment: An Employer's Guide To Solutions

Sexual harassment has become a major concern to employers as they have become aware of its financial, environmental and morale costs in the workplace.

The literature on sexual harassment generally characterizes it as an abuse of either role or sexual power. For example, role power is abused when an employer demands sexual activity as a condition of hiring an applicant. Sexual power is abused if an applicant uses sexual attractiveness to promise sexual favors in exchange for being hired. Two major motivators for harassment, then, are to obtain sexual activity and/or to abuse or increase one's power. These two motivators are not, of course, mutually exclusive.

We believe that sex and power are the primary components of sexual harassment but the issues are more complex than has generally been acknowledged in the sexual harassment literature. Sociologists have developed models of power which, when applied to sexual harassment, lead to a better understanding of the issue. Types of power which can affect sexual harassment include achieved power (that which someone earns), ascribed power (that which is given to someone and cannot be taken away) and situational power (that which depends on the situation in which one is). Each of these types of power also has several sources: achieved power, for example, can come from money, role or position, and information. These types and sources of power are used for a variety of reasons to sexually harass others. Management solutions, if they are to be effective, must result from a careful analysis of each individual case to include both the power issues and the underlying individual reasons behind the sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is not acceptable regardless of the power issues or the motivation. The harasser must be disciplined for the harassment in a way that directly communicates in no uncertain terms that such behavior will not be tolerated. To avoid sexual harassment's costly consequences and minimize its frequency, employers need to identify and understand both the reason for the harassment and the specific form of power being abused.

In this paper we apply the model of achieved, ascribed and situational power to sexual harassment and propose effective employer responses for seven specific reasons for sexual harassment we have observed.

The Question of Power

Achieved Power

Achieved power is a form of power one earns through some effort. Sources of achieved power in the workplace include information, salary (money) and formal role power (title or position). Persons who have valued information have more power than those who do not; those who are paid higher salaries are generally perceived as having more power than those who are paid less; higher status roles carry more power than lower status roles.

Perhaps the most obvious source of power for people to understand as it relates to sexual harassment is that of formal role power based on a person's rank or position within the organization. Abuse of this type of power is widely seen as inappropriate and thus the easiest for management to take action against when it occurs. Understanding achieved power can help managers to take effective actions.

The difficulty with achieved power comes when someone uses his/her success in an abusive way to sexually harass someone else. Complicating this issue is the fact that the power role may be so new that the harasser may not see himself/herself as having any power. Further, the harasser's power may only be relative to the victim and not to the entire organization so it may be easy to deny that he/she has power at all. And, of course, the harasser may be unconsciously attempting to reduce current understand how such behaviors negatively impact the victim may lead to changed behaviors. We have found it effective to discuss this abuse of power with the harasser as a fairness issue: it is simply not fair to use power you worked so hard to achieve to impact negatively another person's chances for career, financial or emotional success. …