Understanding How Sexual Harassment Affects the Workplace

For many folks who've sat through a company presentation on sexual harassment, this lesson probably gives them a sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach because they're anticipating a lecture that tells men why they shouldn't harass women and then informs everyone of the consequences of sexually harassing a co-worker. And while those videos are important for ensuring that every employee understands the organization's stance on sexual harassment, they often can seem sterile and removed from the realities of workplace sexual harassment.

In the United States, sexual harassment is illegal. However, that statement doesn't do a very good job of explaining who gets harassed, why they get harassed, how and why sexual harassment became illegal, what acts are considered sexual harassment, and/or what actions a person can take to report a harasser.

How did sexual harassment laws get passed?

On June 11th, 1963, during the height of the civil rights protests and demonstrations, President John F. Kennedy went on television and spoke to the nation about the moral crisis in America and the need to fulfill its emancipation promise to ensure that all of its citizens were free. That night, he then announced he would be sending a bill to Congress asking them to pass civil rights legislation that would legalize this equality.

On June 19th, 1963, eight days after his television address, President Kennedy sent comprehensive civil rights legislation to Congress. Despite the urgency for such legislation, the process to pass it was not easy. The Administration faced stiff opposition in Congress, and when President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, the legislation he'd believed would help equalize America was threatened. Five days after the assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress and called on them to honor the slain president's legacy by passing the civil rights bill Kennedy had so resolutely believed would change the playing field for millions of Americans.

Civil rights leaders did not trust President Johnson but as he continued to push for passage of the bill, they came to recognize him as an ally and worked closely with him to ensure the act's successful passage. Many legislative battles forced concessions and compromises that threatened to kill the entire Civil Rights Act, but on July 2nd, 1964, a little more than a year after President Kennedy had sent the bill to Congress, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.

What does the Civil Rights Act say about women in the workplace and sexual harassment?

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination and violates the law when it occurs in the workplace, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidelines define sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when the following occurs.

  • submission to such conduct is a term or condition of an individual's employment, and the requirement may be stated outright, be implicit, or implied
  • submission to or rejection of the conduct is a basis for employment decisions
  • conduct of a sexual nature has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with work performance
  • conduct of a sexual nature creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

Although Title VII does not specifically use the words "sexual harassment," courts have held that sexual harassment is a form of illegal sex discrimination. While the laws of some states specifically use the words "sexual harassment," other states have followed the legal developments under federal law by determining that sexual harassment is a form of illegal sex discrimination.

For those who wonder exactly what constitutes sexual harassment, the key word is "unwelcome" governing the act, as unwelcome means unwanted. Sexual conduct is unwelcome whenever the person subjected to it considers it unwelcome. The person being subjected to sexual harassment is not required to voice their objection in order for it to be considered unwelcome. Questions often arise about whether flirting or compliments about someone's appearance are considered harassment and the answer is that if the attention is unwelcome or unwanted, then it is harassment.

Who is a victim of sexual harassment?

Anyone male, female, LGBTQ+, or straight--can be a victim of sexual harassment. The victim and the harasser can be the same or opposite sex. Under Title VII, sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that takes place because of a person's sex and/or gender and has nothing to do with the harassers sex or gender.

What's sometimes hard to remember about sexual harassment is that it doesn't have to do with a harasser's attraction to their target. Sexual harassment is about exerting power over a person and abusing that power to force someone to do something. Sometimes, the harasser is seeking sexual contact with the victim but in other cases, the harasser is looking to force the victim out of a job.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Gender Sensitivity Training course?

According to the EEOC, some of the most recognized forms of sexual harassment are the following.

  • direct sexual advances or propositions, including higher-ranked employees asking for sexual favors, also known as "quid pro quo"
  • intimidating or excluding women employees to jeopardize their employment status
  • creating a hostile workplace for women by using sexist jokes, remarks, or pinning up sexually explicit or pornographic photos

While these are more explicit forms of sexual harassment, harassers also can use more subtle forms of behavior to intimidate and abuse their victims, such as talking about their own sex lives, spreading rumors about their victims' alleged sexual behavior, whether real or not, and making sexual comments about other co-workers. These unwanted actions create an unsafe workplace and serve to demean, humiliate, and/or intimidate the victim.

Sexual harassment is demeaning behavior that always is about the use and abuse of power. Sexual harassment is tied uniquely to gendered power structures and uses sex and gender stereotypes to reinforce power over a victim. Men who sexually harass other men often demean them by taunting them about "being gay" or "being a woman" in order to diminish their masculinity and make them appear weak, while men who sexually harass women often play on fear and insecurity tied to attractiveness and/or body image. Harassers tend to apply pressure to find out where their victim's weak spots are and then uses them to perpetrate the abuse.

Often, the perpetrator holds the keys to access of information and/or resources, and the desire to move up in an organization creates a Catch-22 situation for the victim, which is either submit and be exploited or resist and be punished. The victim is placed in an intimidating lose-lose situation without any power or control.

Who is a sexual harasser?

There is no single identifying characteristic of a sexual harasser. Some harassers are manipulatively abusive, while others come across as charming and witty. What psychologists have found is that sexual harassers often have a combination of characteristics that identify them as prone to harassment behavior, and when they look at the way in which these characteristics come together to form a personality, the pattern becomes clearer.

The first set of characteristics are narcissism and psychopathy. Narcissists have an inflated view of their own talents that is coupled with a lack of empathy and a deep urgency for approval. The tricky part about a narcissist is that on a base level, they don't care if people like them, but they do need to be admired and thought of as powerful. Narcissists harass when they feel they've been denied something they deserve because in their mind, everyone should want or admire them in a way that makes rejection unimaginable.

Psychopaths are characterized by amoral and asocial behavior, irresponsibility, lack of remorse or shame, perversity, and impulsiveness. Because they tend toward fearless dominance and aggressive impulsivity, they are extreme manipulators who lack empathy but know how to mirror their victims' behavior in a way that gives them the appearance of authenticity. Psychopaths sexually harass their victims simply because they want to and tend to create opportunities in which they can.

The second characteristic of sexual harassers is moral disengagement, a way of justifying corruption and creating a singular version of reality that applies only to the harasser. People who employ moral disengagement tend to do it on three levels. First, they justify their action through shifting moral boundaries so that they explain the behavior as a logical outcome, for example, men who came of age in the '60s explaining their behavior by saying, "I grew up in a different era and the rules were different then." Second, they label their behavior to make it less threatening and/or abusive, for example, labeling an assault as a "rendezvous" or an "encounter." Third, they engage in a transfer of responsibility to "forces beyond their control," meaning cultural or social norms and/or pressure to be successful. Fourth, they downplay their actions by shrugging them off and saying that things "could have been worse" in an attempt to minimize the harm caused. Finally, and perhaps most insidiously, they dehumanize the victim by blaming them for bringing the abuse upon themselves through their own behavior, for example, blaming rape victims by attributing the violence to what they were wearing when they were assaulted. Harassers who employ moral disengagement, do not see anything wrong with their actions because they view themselves as in the right, and maintain a view of themselves as decent, morally upstanding people.

The third characteristic of harassers is connected to how the harasser sees himself in terms of his masculinity on the job. There is a much higher rate of sexual harassment in traditionally masculine fields, such as the military, the police force, surgical fields, finance, and more recently, high tech. In an article published in Vanity Fair, reporter Emily Chang detailed the way in which sexism in male-dominated start ups in Silicon Valley has taken a new turn in the form of company orgies where women end up on the losing end no matter whether they participate or not. It appeared in an article entitled "Bacchanalia 2.0."

This revelation is nothing new. A 1989 study of female factory workers found that women who worked as machinists, a male-dominated position, reported being harassed significantly more often than women who worked on the assembly line, which was more gender-equal. In 2017, Ford Motor Company settled a $10 million sexual harassment lawsuit with women who worked at the Chicago Assembly Plant and the Chicago Stamping Plant. The lawsuit contained hundreds of examples of sexual harassment committed over a 25-year period, for example, men crudely commenting on women's breasts and buttocks; graffiti of penises being carved into tables, spray-painted onto floors, and scribbled onto walls; men groping women, pressing against them, simulating sex acts or masturbating in front of them; and supervisors trading better assignments for sex and punishing those who refused. Despite the fact that Ford had settled a similar lawsuit in 1990 to the tune of $22 million, the behavior continued.

If you recall our lesson on how women in the military finally were allowed to serve in combat units, the protests against women being allow to serve were based on the way in which women would disrupt male-centric camaraderie and morale. These traditionally male fields are fertile ground for harassers who employ the excuse of masculinity to harass and count on other men being complicit in the abuse.

The fourth characteristic harassers tend to possess an openly expressed hostility toward women. Harassers tend to characterize women negatively and blame a woman's negative response to sexist statements on women being "too emotional" or "overreacting." If a woman fails to meet the needs of a harasser who is hostile, then the harasser will blame it on her inability to be a "real woman." In the mind of a hostile harasser, the victim always misinterprets the harasser's actions and the harasser always has an out that turns the blame back on the woman.

Putting all of the characteristics together, the bottom line is that harassment indicates a willingness to manipulate victims in an attempt to maintain or gain power and aims to "keep them in their place."

Recognizing the characteristics of a sexual harasser is one thing but the bigger question is how to stop the harasser from operating in the workplace. This challenge is one that companies have begun taking more seriously over the past several decades because globalization and the growth of social media have made it much more damaging for an operation that does nothing to stop harassment.

How do you prevent sexual harassment in the workplace?

The best way to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace is to establish a working environment that values each employee and sets a high standard for treating every person in the organization from the executive board to the cleaning crews with dignity and respect. When it comes to addressing the issues surrounding sexual harassment, an organization should establish a zero-tolerance policy and maintain it.

An effective anti-sexual harassment policy will stress that sexual harassment is illegal and outline a clear and appropriate complaint process that ensures confidentiality for the victim. The policy also should encourage witnesses and/or victims to report the behavior immediately and explain the penalty for retaliating against anyone who reports sexual harassment.

The policy should we disseminated through distribution of written copies, posting of the policy in common areas where employees gather, and should be developed into presentations and/or training sessions. But employers also should develop programs that don't inadvertently reinforce negative feelings. In the article, "How Diversity Training Infuriates Men and Fails Women," in Time magazine, Joanne Lipman explains that when done poorly, diversity training sessions can have the opposite effect and end up damaging otherwise cordial work relationships. She says that researchers found that bad diversity training leaves women and minorities thinking their co-workers are more biased than they'd believed and that telling people about others' biases actually can heighten their own. Lipman points out that experts in diversity training say that the best way to fight bias in the workplace is to develop a common sense of fighting against it "together."

Implementing a sound anti-sexual harassment training program has additional incentive when organizations understand that sexual harassment costs the average company up to $6.7 million a year in low productivity, low morale, employee turnover, and absenteeism. This figure does not include litigation or other legal costs involved in settling sexual harassment lawsuits.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious issue not only for the victims of the harassment who, as we'll see in the next lesson, suffer serious, long-term consequences from the abuse, but also for the organization. The consequences of allowing sexual harassment to flourish can have a devastating impact on the organization's reputation and on the cornerstone of every organization--its employees.