Preventing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

By Thacker, Rebecca A.; Allerton, Haidee | Training & Development, February 1992 | Go to article overview

Preventing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace


Thacker, Rebecca A., Allerton, Haidee, Training & Development


Keep harassment incidents at bay by training employees in how to respond to them. Such training can be the first step toward eliminating the behavior.

Many organizations have sexual harassment policies. But the problem continues to plague workplaces.

Sexual harassment in the workplace can lead to increases in turnover, absenteeism, and lost productivity. An extensive study of federal employees by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board found that sexual harassment cost the federal government $267 million in a two-year period.

What is sexual harassment?

Under Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines established in 1980 and unanimously confirmed by the Supreme Court in 1986, sexual harassment includes physical, verbal, and "environmental" abuse. The law recognizes two general forms of harassment--quid pro quo and hostile work environment.

A classic example of quid pro quo harassment is that of an employer who threatens an employee with dismissal unless he or she performs a sexual act. Hostile-environment harassment may include touching, sexual joking, and leering.

Sexual harassment policies at most organizations typically explain these procedures:

* what to do if you are a target of sexual harassment * how to register a complaint * to whom to report a complaint * what happens after you register a complaint * how long it takes before an investigation begins * who conducts an investigation * how an investigation is conducted * how the investigation results are disseminated * what disciplinary actions to take.

Many organizations will not investigate a sexual harassment charge until the employee files an internal complaint with a manager or other designated person.

That approach is often ineffective in eliminating the problem. In effect, it places the burden on the victims to activate and enact their companies' harassment policies. Sexual harassment continues because many of its targets don't report incidents.

Why targets don't report

People who are targets of sexual harassment usually respond in one of two ways.

* They react actively and complain. * They react passively and keep silent.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many sexual harassment victims are reluctant to file complaints. They're afraid that their work environments may become unpleasant, that they'll suffer retaliation, that they won't be believed, or that they themselves will be blamed.

For instance, 52 percent of the female respondents and 42 percent of the male respondents to the 1987 U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board survey reported that they "ignored" sexual harassment. Four percent of the women and 7 percent of the men reported that they simply "went along" with it.

Most people who have been accused of sexual harassment are men. Most people who have been the targets of sexual harassment are women. Research suggests that in the workplace, women are more likely than men to accept imbalances of power that favor males. And women are more likely to acquiesce to those who are in higher positions of authority.

Some women report feeling guilty about being the targets of sexual harassment; they may feel that they're to blame. Their guilt further inhibits them from taking action against their harassers.

Targets who react passively to sexual harassment inadvertently convey the message that the behavior is acceptable. In some cases, supervisors may misinterpret that message to mean that sexual harassment did not occur. In such an environment, an organization tends to overlook a lot of inappropriate sexually oriented activity.

Me Tarzan, You Jane

Another reason many people are reluctant to report sexual harassment may be due to socialization. Males are socialized to be the initiators in sexual relationships. Females are socialized to be the receptors. And people often bring conditioned sex roles into the workplace. …

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