Sexual harassment in the workplace is a pervasive, chronic problem that can cause enduring psychological harm, according to the president of the American Psychological Association, to which I belong.
“Sexual harassment in the workplace is a significant occupational health psychology problem,” he said. “Psychological research has offered understanding into the causes of workplace harassment, as well as some strategies for preventing or reducing it. However, there is limited research regarding the characteristics of harassers, which makes it difficult to predict who will do it and where and when it might happen. What we do know is that harassers tend to lack a social conscience and engage in manipulative, immature, irresponsible and exploitative behaviors.”
Indeed the problem is “chronic.” An important data analysis from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, released Monday broke down the industries that generate most sexual-harassment charges. Some of the leaders: hospitality and food services (14 percent of complaints), retail (13 percent), manufacturing (12 percent), health care (11 percent), and administrative and support (7 percent). The “information” (3 percent) and arts and entertainment (2 percent) sectors are well down the list. Farmworkers, janitors, and restaurant are particularly vulnerable, as are women in any position where they are isolated or work at night. A government survey conducted in 2011 found that 1 in 5 women said they had been raped (though not all at work). Altogether these are shocking and horrible figures.
What the researchers say: Recent research has shown that sexual harassment is primarily aimed at women, but men are also targets of such behavior. Perpetrators of sexual harassment in the workplace are not only supervisors/superiors but are also coworkers, subordinates, customers, and clients, he said.
According to an article “Sexual Harassment: Have We Made Any Progress?” published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, women tend to report more adverse effects than men after experiencing workplace sexual harassment. These may include anxiety, depression, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, post-traumatic stress and a lower level of overall happiness.
Women are more likely to report sexual harassment than men, according to the article, but “studies indicate that men may be at a higher risk of mental health issues and depression.” Men in the military are 10 times more likely to experience sexual harassment than civilian men, but an estimated 81 percent of military men who are harassed do not report it, the articles added.
Organizational climate is a strong predictor of workplace sexual harassment and can include situations where men outnumber women, where supervisors are predominantly male, and where there is a sense among employees that complaints will not be taken seriously. Research has shown that hierarchical power dynamics are at the root of sexual harassment. In other words, it’s not about sex.
“Psychology can help, in the form of sexual harassment training, but it only works if it is part of a comprehensive, committed effort to combat the problem,” the researchers said. “Most research points to sanctions as the primary way that organizations can be less tolerant of harassment. Organizations need to be proactive in establishing policies prohibiting sexual harassment, raising employee awareness, establishing reporting procedures and educating employees about these policies. More research is needed to identify the antecedents to harassment that will help employees and managers identify and respond appropriately.”
So what? DT, Roy Moore Bill Clinton and, it would seem, perhaps millions of others have been implicated in workplace “sexual harassment.” One of the problems is that nobody seems willing to define what the term actually means. To say this is not to defend the harassers—most of them deserve all the bad things that I hope are coming to them, and more. The problem is that we tend to use generalizations when we haven’t really thought through what behaviors they really refer to. What are the actions that fall under that rubric? They probably vary according to custom and culture and maybe from person to person depending on their psychogenetic makeup. For example, there is a move afoot in the UK, according to Friday’s The Times, to ban Sleeping Beauty because of the “nonconsensual kiss” that the Prince bestows on Beauty.
There are certainly a great number of things that we can all agree on and these should be clarified both in the workplace and in society generally. Just saying “you mustn’t sexually harass” is useless, it’s rather like saying you’ve got to be “customer centric” or “a team player.” Without defining what actions constitute being a “team player” or “customer-centric” your exaltation is meaningless. Your ideas of what constitutes “sexual harassment” are probably wildly different to those of a man raised on violent video games, or who was a witness to sexual abuse in the household or even one who has grown up with a spiritual belief system that sees women as possessions of or of lesser status than men.
Until we get a societal agreement as just what constitutes “sexual harassment” DT and his lesser ilk will likely continue to get away with it.
What now? In workplaces, for a start, we must work out what we mean by all of the pious generalizations that we make and “values” that we claim to adhere to. We’ve hidden behind them for far too long. We must make our core values concrete and actionable, and stick to them. People are far less stressed when they understand what they are required to do or not to do—what behaviors they have to adhere to in order to be a member of the “tribe”—even if they don’t agree with them. We can use people’s overwhelming need to belong to reduce the incidence of harassment, sexual or otherwise, in the workplace.