The Prevention of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

The Prevention of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

the-framework-1640629_960_720Prevention and intervention regarding sexual harassment in the workplace requires not only a legal perspective and sound policy, but a multi-disciplinary range of analytic tools. Only a complete approach will permit a tailoring of responses to fit each situation. Not all incidents are of the same severity and not all sexual harassment takes the same form nor stems from the same motivations. The legalistic approach that seeks to inform people about laws and policies is an essential but insufficient part of an effective prevention campaign. Prevention demands a wider range of theoretical perspectives as guidance. These social and psychological perspectives are also a support to managers who are called upon to deal with the emotional aftermath of victims and co-workers who empathize with the victims.
In coming to terms with sexual harassment in the workplace, it may help to think of the layers of an onion: The innermost layers are natural urges; the next layers are sociocultural norms and prohibitions; surrounding them are the organizational facilitators or constraints; and the outermost layer represents individual variables. There are several theoretical approaches to this problem. Each one emphasizes different aspects and suggests different actions. Not all can be applied by management, but all are helpful to know and expose one facet of the problem within one or more layers of that onion.

A description of sexual harassment, its forms and it effects

Sexual harassment was defined by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1989 as “Unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that detrimentally affects the work environment or leads to adverse job-related consequences for the victims of harassment.” It includes unwanted sexual attention, coercion to get sexual favours, and bullying based on gender. The prevention of sexual harassment is not a plot to take the fun out of work or prevent harmless flirting – au contraire – a healthy and preventive climate and policy structure allows people to feel relaxed, secure, and enjoy workplace relationships.

However, when any relationship becomes a relationship that may include sexual touching, the legal definition of consent must be clear. Consent must be freely and authentically given. This will not be the case if someone is fearful about saying no. Ideas that men may have about women really wanting to be touched when saying or acting otherwise have been flatly rejected in court.

Victims of sexual harassment may respond by denying to themselves that it is happening or attempting to avoid the harasser. They may try to reduce their stress by talking to friends. These responses do not work since harassers are perseverant and prone to escalating their behavior. Some people try to work it out by talking directly to their harasser, especially if it seems relatively minor. Others make a formal report. It must be emphasized that many people are justly or unjustly afraid to make a formal report, as will be further explained below. In any case, most victims just want the harassment to stop.
The effects of sexual harassment on the victim are many. They include stress, intrusive thoughts, somatic symptoms, fear, depression, and a sense of losing control of their lives. In practical terms, the victim’s academic or professional careers can be diverted or destroyed. The effects on organizations are significant as well. These include loss of productivity and absenteeism. When victims walk away, the employer loses the benefits of their brains and abilities as well as the training and experience the individual had.

A good example of the pernicious effect of even low-level sexual harassment comes from a 2005 study. Half the participants went through a job interview normally, and half were subject to mild gender harassment, such as being asked a sexist question. “Participants in the harassing condition used significantly more diluted language, repeated words more frequently, exhibited more false starts, and were judged as having lower quality answers than those who were not harassed.”
We can get a fuller grasp of sexual harassment by considering several different approaches to understand and prevent it.

The natural/biological approach

The natural/biological approach acknowledges that sexual attractions will be part of any group situation. This implies that, while good policies and education will help, it can never eliminate all harassment problems in the workplace. While women can and do engage in sexual bullying and harassment, the majority of cases involve male harassers. One statistic from a U.S. survey found that 54% of men think about sex every day or several times a day, compared to 19% of women. The real problem, according this this approach, is that some individuals lack social skills and empathy. They can then make crude and awkward advances and not see when others are uncomfortable, nor can they easily hear “no.”

People – individual variations

John B. Pryor gave subjects ten scenarios to read. He then asked them how they would behave in each scenario, assuming there would be no consequences. From this study he developed the “likelihood of sexually harassing” scale. High LSH scores are strongly correlated with other precursors of bad behavior including beliefs that sex is adversarial, acceptance of rape myths, sex-role stereotyping, and less feminist attitudes. High LSH scoring men also have difficulty in “putting themselves in another person’s shoes.” The point of having this scale is to see if these attitudes, which anyone would intuitively suspect to be problematic, really do predict harassing behaviors. It later turned out that they do. One psychological factor thought to be at play is some men’s unconscious association of power/domination with sex. In other words, the concepts of power and sex may be so strongly linked for men with a high LSH, that eroticism is triggered whenever the concept of power is evident. Other research suggests that men form erotic attachments during adolescence which then tend to remain frozen. For women, “erotic plasticity” remains flexible throughout the lifespan . My tentative conclusion here is that an association of sex with power will endure as do tendencies to pedophilia. Therefore legal consequences are the best deterrent is such cases.

The sex-role spillover approach

The sex-role spillover approach predicts that gender-based expectations, especially about which tasks women should perform, will spill over from the home into the workplace. This effect is most pronounced in workgroups with a small minority of women in lower-level jobs. The solution the approach offers to employers – to establish gender parity – may be a good goal, but is easier said than done. Sustainable gender parity requires equal training and career development opportunities for women, and legitimate accommodation for familial issues that most women must negotiate during their careers.

The sociocultural approach

The sociocultural approach provides insights that are essential for creating a healthy work environment. Sociocultural issues link to my accompanying article on gender in the workplace. The main point here is that everyone walks into the workplace with a set of societal norms and gendered expectations. Not only are some of these received ideas problematic, they differ along cultural, ethnic and gender lines. Cultural identities are supremely important to all of us. It is only if a group is homogenous that this fact can be forgotten, in the way that we might only notice the sound of the fridge when it turns off. Indeed, not only do norms interpret and regulate behavior, they kick into high gear when cultural or gender differences make them obvious .
The complication that can lead to unpleasantness, bullying, or bullying along gender lines, is that people with insecure identities feel threatened by deviations from the social norms they expect. Their reactions can be extreme, as when a woman enters a profession or a level of management that was thought to be reserved for men, or they can be subtle. Some men feel an identity threat when women earn more or have authority over them. Their gender identity can also seem threatened by strong women, gay men, or simply by co-workers who “do gender” in different ways and thus confuse the distinctions between the sexes. This is why we have the classic scenario of a group of men around the water cooler or on the loading dock and derogatory sexist comments when a woman walks by. The men are attempting to police the gendered behavior they want to see, and they are affirming their membership in that particular “men’s club” by using sexist jokes or trash talk. This discomfort with the blurring of gender polarity explains why a 1982 survey found that lesbian women reported higher rates of harassment than heterosexual women. In a major review, O’Leary-Kelly et al. say that “there is accumulating evidence that sexual harassers are motivated by social identity concerns … male participants exposed to gender identity threats were more likely … to engage in sexually hostile behavior.”

Organisational norms and expectations

The organisational approach is the one that allows management and all employees to best get a grip on the problem of sexual harassment. Fortunately, it is also an effective arena in which to effect change. The items that fall under this heading include deterrent and restitutive policies and procedures, the dynamics of reporting abuse, the general atmosphere of the work environment, and education.
At this point, we must draw full attention to a critical fork in the road. There are only two states that exist for an organisation. It can be in the state which takes prevention and complaints seriously, and acts appropriately. Or it can be in the failed state of either doing nothing or, worse, of having policies just for show or to facilitate cover ups. And the kicker here is that good intentions do not matter, facts may or may not matter (eventually), and perception is everything. If you resist the notion that this question can be so black and white, consider that a victim of sexual harassment is faced with a binary choice as to whether to seek a remedy by some form of reporting — or not. Yet if victims try to put up with it or leave, the organisation will never get out of this mess. Institutions must perform well on this issue and gain the trust of everyone – no easy task when the actual workings of the complaint process are confidential.
The issue is so important that researchers have come up with a measuring tool, the organisational tolerance for sexual harassment (OTSH), which has been used in many studies. It works by asking people to rate their perceptions of the likely outcomes should a complaint be made in six scenarios. If OTSH scores high, the organisation is perceived to be a place where people face a risk of negative consequences for reporting abuse. High OTSH is a lose/lose situation. Either the employees are correct in their assessment, or they are wrong but their negative perception means that no one comes forward while harassment continues. There is a “significant and robust relationship between organizational climate and sexual harassment.” Moreover, research suggests that (low) OTSH is directly associated with work satisfaction, life satisfaction, psychological well-being, and physical health for both male and female employees. ”


While it is obvious that a sexual harassment policy should not just be a document on file, the reporting of harassment is far from obvious. During the prevention training I did at one university, participants were informed anyone being harassed should 1) seek to resolve the problem by directly addressing the harasser and then, if that did not resolve the issue, 2) report to HR or a manager. This is correct “in theory” but the reality is much more problematic. Two studies found that reporting harassment does not often improve things and may even worsen outcomes for the target due to reprisals. One can only hope that this situation has improved of late. It is clear that the decision about confronting a harassing person must be weighed by the individual who feels harassed. If it seems a minor thing that could be cleared up by providing feedback, this might be fine. As for reporting to management, that hinges on the employee’s perception of OTSH which in turn hinges of the institution’s policies, track record, and efforts to make expectations and consequences known. As you may guess, a study established that ignoring the problem will not help and may allow it to get worse. It is important not to blame the victim for an honest decision to report or not, nor for whom they choose to report to. Of course accusations that are just “made up” to attack someone else must also be disciplined as the Canada Safety Council stipulates. Usually, the victims are the people in distress and are desperately trying to cope with a vexing problem that may have many layers.


Within an organization, power dynamics have a role in all forms of sexual harassment. Power can come from a person’s status or physical strength, but asymmetries may arise from permanent or temporary situations. For example, on an assignment, I may now need information or cooperation from you to complete my work. You now have the power to withhold these until favours are granted, or you may simply decide that I have to put up with poor behavior because I need your cooperation. Despite the importance of power dynamics, hasty assumptions are always dangerous. Female supervisors and professors are often harassment by male employees and students.
Some opportunities for harassment are physical, as when two people are in a secluded place. At one church in Ottawa, management decided to install windows in the doors to every room in order to reduce secluded areas as physical opportunities for harassment.
The psychological climate has been found to be the strongest predictor of sexual harassment in organizations by several studies. Examples of unfavourable psychological climate include extreme authoritarianism and tolerance of rudeness. It also includes “sexy atmosphere.” Permission of too much innuendo or display of sexy images in the workplace was found to be a precondition for sexual harassment by tribunals in British Columbia and Quebec.
Another aspect of psychological climate is the degree of professionalism in a workplace. An unprofessional climate permits swearing, drinking, expectations to perform menial activities not related to the job, using company time and resources for personal ends, and frequent emotional outbreaks. Of course none of this is desirable anyway, but the point is that these behaviors create a climate of disrespect toward the employer and other employees. One study found that a professional environment acts as an external inhibitor to sexual harassment as well.

Military and para-military organizations

A special mention needs be made about the military, police and firefighters, due to the extreme nature of sexual harassment that can plague these groups and that so often makes the news. There are three factors to remain aware of. The first factor is the practical concern people have when they face danger as a team. If a firefighter loses consciousness in a burning building, it is fair to expect any other firefighter to have the physical strength to drag the person out, and fast. These capabilities are tested for when women are hired, so this seems like a worry that has been addressed. The second factor applies to any job that was once a male preserve – job security. This causes anxiety for some men and we read many examples of attempts to bully women to the point where they will leave and no others will apply. These factors are obvious, but there may be a third. Male preserves such as the armed forces or contact sports teams permit close male bonding, bonding that differs from romantic bonding. In such groups, traditional men can have emotional attachments not easily found in the larger society. They can help and care for each other in powerful ways. The arrival of women or gay men adds a possible sexual complication. The presence of other gender identities feels like it will upset the whole applecart; and thus the extreme resistance. Due to this confluence of factors in such organisations, it is not easy to change the internal norms. Only a sustained multifaceted approach with buy in from upper ranks has any chance of success.


It need hardly be said that education has a key role in prevention. This education must include information about policies and procedures for reporting and resolving conflicts. However, it has also been shown in at least one study that workshops or guided discussions that stimulate people to consider the ethical issues involved, and to preconceive how they might intervene when problems arise, are effective. This effectiveness cannot be underestimated because prevention and informal resolutions are so much less costly than formal complaints. I mean less costly for the individuals and the organisation, and less costly both emotionally and financially.


Sexual harassment in the workplace seems to be an iceberg that is rising up from the water these days. There is more motivation for employers to deal with such problems due to legal issues, liability issues, productivity issues, as well as public pressure. More and more victims are speaking up. The argument here is that most of the focus is on legal remedies. A multi-disciplinary understanding of the problem reveals that legalistic approaches are not enough. Corporations and institutions need to include ongoing preventive measures in their practices. Sound policy and procedures need to be evident, evolving, and explained frequently. Informal resolutions of the inevitable incipient and less serious issues can avoid financial expense and the stress and strain of all involved with formal complaints. The danger of informal resolutions is that they can be whitewashing exercises. Nonetheless, both formal and informal attempts to resolve sexual harassment issues are part of institutional life. The success of both methods is more likely when attention is given to the climate and professionalism of the workplace and to conducting group sessions that allow everyone to understand the ethical and human issues involved.