Characteristics of Workplace Harassment'Perpetrators

This article will look at who the perpetrators of workplace harassment are and what causes them to harass others. Additional topics will include how such information can be used in prevention efforts and what actions should NOT be taken using that same information.

  Who Are They?

Some of are easy to identify based on information gleaned from data and research on harassment. The attitudes that cause a person to harass someone else can be found throughout society, and making the connection to people associated with those attitudes doesn't take much if take the time to do so. While not everyone lives up to the stereotypes attached to them-even harassers-some of those facets do match up to some degree with the evidence.
While anyone can be a perpetrator of workplace harassment, there are certain characteristics that are common. Categorically, they include:
  •          Rank-In most cases, the harasser was someone who was of a higher ranking than their victim. Surveys and studies have shown that around 80% are considered the victim's boss: supervisors, managers, employers, etc.1 About half, 47.3%, were of equal ranking to the victim and were considered their peer, and only about 16% were subordinate to the victim. It should be noted that there is overlap with the data; this is due to instances where there were multiple harassers who may have been a mix of all three rankings. Cases where there was a single harasser, but still someone of seniority to the victim, were still the most common at 34.4%
  •          Gender-It has been established that both women and men can be victims, the same can be said for the harassers. As women are often the victims, men are more often the perpetrators of harassment. However perpetrator gender isn't as skewed as you may think, and often varies based on other factors. In a Canadian survey, female victim's perpetrators were 30% female, 47% men, and 23% mix (male and female) while male victim's perpetrators were 53% male, 32% mixed, and 15% female.2 While men were in the majority in both cases, they only accounted for about half of the data excluding those in the mixed category.
  •          Race-As with gender, there is a preconceived notion as to the race of workplace harassment perpetrators; in this case, perpetrators of workplace harassment being primarily white, i.e. not a minority. However, the race of the perpetrator in cases of workplace harassment is not always something that is recorded. Even in cases of racial harassment, it is simply assumed that the perpetrator is not of the same race as their victim and it is left at that. The normalization of racial harassment in the workplace suggests that it's not necessarily isolated to white harasser verses non-white victim as it stereotypes may suggest. But without clearer data, it's all speculation at this point.

      "Phantom" or Anonymous Harassers

    It should be noted that not all workplace harassers are going to be identifiable. You should not expect to see a harasser attack their victim face-to-face, or even leave behind any identifying traits about themselves. Without any witnesses-including the victim themselves-it's hard to properly know what all the factors involved are. Anonymous or so-called "Phantom" harassers are perpetrators that are unknown to their victims and they are becoming increasingly common.3 While it is possible to narrow down potential suspects based on type and method of harassment (e.g. a threatening note slipped under the victim's door) and when it happened, it can be difficult to properly address the situation and prevent future instances without knowing who is doing them. The focus then in those cases should be on protecting the victim(s) and making sure that they are getting whatever help they need.

      What Motivations Do They Have?

    Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Preventing Workplace Harassment course?

    Often there is some kind of motivation behind why a perpetrator choose to harass someone, whether it's in the workplace or not. This can include the reasons why they chose the person they did and what actions they did against the victim. The perpetrators of workplace harassment are still people and, psychologically speaking, there's usually a logical reason behind people's actions no matter how twisted or strange those actions may be.4 A harasser, when confronted, may give a weak reason or excuse as to why they did what they did, but it's still a reason nonetheless.

    Some of the more common motivators behind workplace harassment include:

  •          Power-Considering that the majority of harassers have seniority over their victims, power is certainly a motivator to consider. Those who have bully-like behaviors are rather persistent and savvy, which is appealing for positions of authority.5 Harassment is made easier when there is an abuse of power or when a person has power over their victim. Even when the perpetrator believes that they have power over their victim, it can still be enough to convince them that what they are doing is perfectly within the scope of their abilities and/or right. Power, even the perception of it, is strong enough to convince a person that they can do whatever they want and to whoever they want without consequences.
  •          Desire(s) and Pleasure-There are some that find it pleasurable to demean or exert their authority over others.6 It doesn't necessarily have to be sexual pleasure either, although that is possible motivator as well. Elements of desire and pleasure may be why some harassers choose certain methods or victims of harassment, as one may provide more pleasure than others. Cases of sexual harassment, for example, can be more about power than sexual pleasure but desire is still a factor in deciding to harass someone in a sexual manner and who they want to harass. In that regard, then there may be a particular preference in who they choose as a victim, even if it's just someone who seems vulnerable.
  •          Prejudice-Prejudice can be deeply ingrained into a person's behavior and attitude, and may play a rather large role in how they interact with others. Subconscious prejudices, like those that influence microaggressions, can determine why someone harasses certain people. Especially in cases of discriminatory harassment involving aspects of racism and sexism, prejudice can make it a person's negative actions seem logical and prevent them from seeing anything wrong with what they've done. Prejudice towards certain groups may even make a person feel like harassing those persons is expected of them and normal.
  •          Anger-There can be an emotional element to harassment, especially if it provides a connection between the harasser and their victim(s). Anger in those instances can be quite common, as a harasser may be angry with their victim for whatever reason or just choose them as a convenient target to unleash their anger upon. If a harasser is angry with their victim for something (e.g. a supervisor who is angry about an employee's poor work performance), then they may see harassment as a justifiable way of punishing them. Even if the victim did nothing to warrant the harasser's anger, they may just be a convenient target for them to let loose on and be an outlet. This can be especially true when the perpetrator has seniority, as the victim may think that they either did something to deserve the anger and abuse, or that they have no power to stop it and just decide to take it.

      How Can This Information Help With Prevention?

    Information about the demographics and motivations of the perpetrators of workplace harassment can help in a number of ways when it comes to prevention. The way that you use that information will depend on what your role is in the business. If you are looking at ways to protect yourself as a regular employee, you're going to use this information differently than an employer who's looking to prevent harassment throughout their business. Regardless of what your reasons are for obtaining this information, here are a few ways that you can use it at work:

  •          Analyze Risk Factors-The characteristics of harassment perpetrators can be viewed as risk factors for harassment in the workplace. Analyzing the presence of those characteristics in a business amongst the staff can help the leadership determine how likely it is that an instance of harassment will happen, and possibly even where. Things like a person's behavior can suggest if they are exhibiting prejudice or may be susceptible to abuses of power, which can act as an early warning sign that they could harass someone if circumstances allow for it. This can help prevent things from escalating further and from causing problems.
  •          Work and Assignment Planning-If someone is already exhibit signs that they may harass someone, especially members of a certain demographic, then it's only logical that you would want to keep them apart. When you're pairing people up to work in teams or even pairs, you want to make sure that there's nothing that's going to interfere with their ability to work well together. For example, someone who may be showing some sexist tendencies might not work well together with someone of the opposite sex whom they may see as inferior and a potential target of harassment. Likewise, you might not want to pair them up with someone else who has similar tendencies, as they may foster and encourage each other's negative behavior.
  •          Checks and Balances-It may be wise to implement a system of checks and balances for those in positions of authority, as power can be a motivator for harassment. For those who may have been newly promoted to a supervisor-like position, there may be more of a threat of power abuse and harassment because that authority is so new to them. If there was a hiring or selection process for a certain position, looking at how the candidates interact with one another can help identify how they will respond to having power and authority. Those with bullying and harassing tendencies are highly opportunistic and are not above attacking their competitors for the sake of their own career.7 Even if it's for a probationary period when they first get the position, it can help curb some harassing tendencies that may have risen up during the selection process or in response to their new authority.

      How This Information Should NOT Be Used?

    Whenever you get information that can be used in a positive way, there is going to be the possibility that it could also be misused. As helpful as information about perpetrators of workplace harassment can be in the effort to stop and prevent harassment, it doesn't do much good if it itself is abused. It's not going to do anyone any good if the information is misinterpreted or misapplied; in that regard, you could end up harming someone rather than doing something of benefit to others.

    Although there may be other ways specific to certain situations or circumstances, there are two primary ways in which this information can be misused:

  •          Discrimination-The information in this article about perpetrators of workplace harassers is a sample based on what has been reported. It is not a guarantee as the data is not and will never be finite, and it should not be treated as such. With that in mind, it should not be used to discriminate against those who happen to have some of the same characteristics as a harasser. In a way, you could be considered the harasser in such an instance because you're stereotyping or generalizing someone based on aspects of their demographics.
  •          Favoritism-It can be very easy to play favorites with someone because of your own experiences with them. You may think it is impossible for them to be capable of harassment because a) you've never witnessed them harass anyone before, and b) they don't fit with any of the information provided about perpetrators of harassment. The mindsets you have of both the person and the information might not match and that can keep you from being impartial about any harassment that they might have done towards someone. Again, don't narrow your focus or generalize what you've learned when you apply it, no matter who you're applying it to.