Sexually Harassing Messages: Decoding Workplace Conversation

By Keyton, Joann; Menzie, Kathy | Communication Studies, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Sexually Harassing Messages: Decoding Workplace Conversation


Keyton, Joann, Menzie, Kathy, Communication Studies


"Sex and work--these two seemingly incompatible areas have created serious implications for employees and organizations" (Keyton, 1996, p. 93). Despite federal and circuit court rulings, media reports on high profile or class action suits, and millions of dollars spent on training and intervention, sexual harassment continues to physically and psychologically threaten employees in the workplace (Slobodzian, 2000). During the period 1994-2005, the number of sexual harassment charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and state and local Fair Employment Practices agencies has averaged slightly over 14,000 annually with monetary resolutions averaging $38 million (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, 2006). Using meta-analytic procedures across empirical studies of sexual harassment, Ilies, Hauserman, Schwochau, & Stibal (2003) determined that 58% of women reported experiencing potentially harassing behaviors with 24% reporting having been sexually harassed. Their findings underscore that not all complaints are reported to the EEOC or to employers; one estimate of nonreporting runs 95% (Roberts & Mann, 1996).

The Language of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is a phenomenon that relies on words, or language. As MacKinnon (1993) decreed, "If ever words have been understood as acts, it has been when they are sexual harassment" (p. 45). Communication scholars have repeatedly argued that harassment occurs through verbal and nonverbal communication (Kreps, 1993; Wood, 1994)--the same mechanism through which work is completed. At work, individuals are expected to communicate interdependently with others to accomplish organizational goals (Harris, 1993). Thus, conversation with colleagues and supervisors is both the conduit through which professional relationships are established, and the conduit through which sexual harassment is expressed.

Despite acknowledging the role of communication in sexual harassment, research has largely relied upon psychological and behavioral conceptualizations. In an effort to foreground individuals' experiences with sexual harassment, the discursive examination of sexual harassment has relied on narrative reports of sexual harassment (e.g., the narratives used as data for the special issue on sexual harassment, Journal of Applied Communication Research, 1992, volume 20, issue 4). Despite its importance in giving voice to victims and providing the opportunity to merge personal narratives within societal and organizational history (e.g., Clair, 1993, 1994), narratives are generalized, first-person, and retrospective accounts composed in passive voice about what individuals feel about what happened to them with little direct report of the dialogue. This interpretation of past events can be strikingly different from interactive dialogue--the direct dyadic experience--that demonstrates the conversational turns by which sexual harassment is enacted, and the role of each person in that enactment and development.

Ideally, scholars would have direct access to the phenomenon under study. However, it is unlikely that researchers will encounter sexually harassing interaction as it is occurring, as it most often occurs in organizational spaces where interaction is isolated or is protected, or is sanctioned by others (see, for example, descriptions of sexual harassment incidents described in Bingham & Gansler, 2002). Thus even studies employing participant observation and ethnography are unlikely to reveal sexually harassing conversations. Affirmative action officers, human resources professionals, and others who take sexual harassment complaints from employees have also noted this problem. Dr. Carol Vogel, Affirmative Action Director of Washburn University of Topeka commented "when I interview someone, even right after an event, they seldom remember the exact words that were said. They remember how they felt, but not exactly what was said" (personal communication, June 2, 2003). …

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