Sexual Harassment and Communication Research Paper

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Sexual harassment, a predatory form of sexual behavior in the workplace, has been a persistent problem for women—and for some men—in the workplace for centuries. Targets of the behavior have always known, and researchers have confirmed, that sexual harassment is a highly destructive workplace process. It creates stress, severe depression, and other health problems for the target and anxiety for all members of the workplace and costs millions, possibly billions, to organizations in terms of increased health care costs, lost productivity, legal fees, training, and replacing targets of sexual harassment who leave the workplace to escape the predatory sexual behavior by colleagues. Sexual harassment, even less aggressive forms, is never a good thing.

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Despite the negative consequences of predatory sexual behavior in the workplace, it was not until recent times that sexual harassment was named and described as an illegal workplace behavior. Despite the fact that sexual harassment is illegal, it continues to exist in the contemporary workplace in diverse contexts such as higher education, the military, health care, corporate businesses, small businesses, and nonprofit organizations. For many years, only women were legally recognized as targets of sexual harassment. However, more recent rulings acknowledge that men can also be targets of sexual harassment. While some believe that only “weak” or “meek” people are victims of sexual harassment, the truth is that targets can be young and old, rich and poor, undereducated or highly educated, managers, secretaries, or even volunteers to an organization. Targets do not seem to share personality traits and common sex-role expectations. In fact, it often seems that the only similarity between targets is that they are so very diverse. Researchers, especially feminist researchers, have extensively examined sexual harassment in the workplace since the 1970s. While researchers from a diverse array of fields study sexual harassment in the workplace, the field of communication provides a distinctive approach to this topic.

Early research viewed communication as ancillary to sexual harassment. It was typically conceptualized in very simplistic terms. For example, harassers use communication to harass; targets use communication to respond; organizations use communication to prevent sexual harassment from occurring. This early body of research tended to focus on the individual level. For example, some researchers focused on the victim, suggesting ways by which victims could have higher self-esteem so they would be less likely to be targeted in the first place. Other researchers focused on variables that could predict who would be a victim or who was more likely to be a harasser. Finally, some researchers provided prescriptive advice for organizations on how to manage sexual harassment. This advice was typically predicated on the misplaced notion that sexual harassment is an interpersonal problem and therefore needs to be dealt with at the microlevel.

As research on this topic became more sophisticated, researchers began to realize that sexual harassment and resistance to it are themselves acts of communication. Sexual harassment communicates social roles, norms, and expectations. It is a means by which gender integration in the workplace is resisted and differentiated gender roles are highlighted. Resistance to sexual harassment communicates dissatisfaction with the status quo. It signals at least a partial rejection of highly sexualized gendered expectations. Unfortunately, resistance also communicates an unwillingness to work within the status quo. For example, women who protest against predatory sexual behavior “can’t take a joke,” “must be lesbians,” and are overly sensitive. Men who resist sexual harassment are called gay and are perceived as feminine. To better understand the dynamic interplay between sexual harassment and communication, sexual harassment will first be defined, a discursive approach to sexual harassment will be described, and several discursive contexts for sexual harassment will be presented.


Because it is an illegal behavior, the federal government and the court system have provided a consistent definition of sexual harassment. In contrast, lay definitions, that is, definitions provided by working men and women, tend to vary widely and may or may not match the legal definition of sexual harassment. In this section, a discussion of the legal definition of sexual harassment will first be provided. The legal definition and lay definitions of the term will then be compared.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC, 2007),

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. (Paragraph 2)

Essentially, two types of sexual harassment are represented within this definition. Quid pro quo sexual harassment is literally translated as “this for that.” This is the most recognized form of sexual harassment and occurs when a person in a hierarchically superior position makes employment or promotion contingent on the receipt of sexual favors. The second type of sexual harassment is called “hostile environment.” Here, the unwanted sexual attention is so prevalent or so severe that the workplace becomes destructive or damaging to the target of the unwanted behavior. A third type of sexual harassment is becoming increasingly recognized by the court system. Third-person sexual harassment occurs when the victim was not the person harassed but was negatively affected by the harassment.

Despite the seeming clarity of the EEOC’s definition of sexual harassment and the fact that most organizations have formal policies regarding sexual harassment, this behavior continues to be a persistent problem in the workplace. Cases of sexual harassment that seem fairly obvious and straightforward are denied by the harassers. Targets are often reluctant to label these behaviors as sexual harassment, even when they acknowledge that the behaviors have a strong negative impact on their working conditions. How is it possible for so much confusion to occur over a term with such a clear definition? The answer is that lay definitions of sexual harassment are not nearly as clear or as consistent as the one offered by the EEOC.

While the definition above is used by legal institutions in determining sexual harassment, scholars have discovered that lay definitions are less uniform. In fact, the way sexual harassment is defined in everyday life appears to be highly interpretive and subjective. For example, men and women tend to define different behaviors as sexual harassment, with women consistently viewing more behaviors as sexual harassment than do men. These definitions are moderated by position in the hierarchy, organizational culture, and personal experience with sexual harassment. The strong differences in operational definitions of sexual harassment have prompted communication scholars to shift away from researching sexual harassment as a legal issue to conceptualizing it as a discursive phenomenon. In other words, we now think about communication as central to understanding and managing sexual harassment.

Sexual Harassment as Discourse

So what does it mean when scholars claim that sexual harassment is a discursive process? “A discursive focus places communication at the core of sexual harassment” (Dougherty, 1999, p. 437). Consequently, instead of viewing communication in simple terms—such as reception or interpretation of messages, “a discursive framework understands communication as creating and shaping social reality rather than just being influenced by it” (Bingham, 1994, p. 9). When viewed from a discursive perspective, sexual harassment could no longer be considered an interpersonal problem between two people. Instead, sexual harassment must be viewed as a communication phenomenon. In other words, sexual harassment allows us to observe macro forces at play in a micro context. Sexual harassers and their targets are enacting social expectations, and in so doing, they recreate and reinforce the presence of those social expectations at the macrolevel. Those social expectations tell us who men and women should be and how they should behave and define their “proper” roles in society. After reviewing volumes of literature on sexual harassment, prominent communication scholars shifted to studying communication as discourse because it held the greatest possibility of achieving change at the social and organizational levels (Bingham, 1994).

Language as a constitutive force lies at the center of discourse. Words do not simply name what already exists, they shape the way we understand and talk about any given issue. Language shapes our reality. The constitutive function of sexual harassment can be seen in the language surrounding sexual harassment. Probably, the cleanest example of sexual harassment as discourse lies in the very label “sexual harassment.” According to Julia Wood (1994), at one point in the fairly recent past, there was no word available to describe or make sense of unwanted sexual attention in the workplace. Consequently, targets of these behaviors were unable to adequately describe the horror and humiliation of their experiences. In fact, this predatory sexual behavior was viewed as normal and acceptable by many people in organizations. Women who complained were viewed negatively. However, once the label “sexual harassment” was coined, women’s concerns and issues were legitimized, and predatory sexual behavior in the workplace was deemed abnormal and unacceptable (Wood, 1994). Simply by creating a new discourse of sexual harassment, women were able to problematize predatory sexual behavior in the workplace.

The single most significant consequence in the shift toward a discursive understanding of sexual harassment is the increased complexity and fluidity involved in the process. No longer is sexual harassment simply about the harasser-target dyad. No longer is communication simply how the harassment is communicated and responded to. Instead, scholars now tend to see sexual harassment as a socially complex phenomenon. This complexity has been explored by research on targets of sexual harassment, sexual harassment as a part of the organizational culture, and sexual harassment as a function of power. Each of these areas will be discussed.

Targets of Sexual Harassment

One mark of a discursive approach to sexual harassment is to view the phenomenon as more than a simple interpersonal problem. Even when only a single role in the behavior is targeted by researchers, there is an explicit recognition that other, powerful forces are at play. Many times, the force that inspires sexual harassment is social expectations for men and women. These social expectations inspire certain behaviors and reactions from some men and women in organizations. For example, we know that women in academia are targets of sexual harassment and that these experiences can be devastating. These experiences are not isolated. They are systematic, ongoing, and reinforce the patriarchal structures that make tenured women professors a minority group in the ivory towers. Formal policy and administrative roles often serve to further reinforce the gendered dynamics at play in sexual harassment. This problem is so intense that a special issue of one of the discipline’s top academic journals was dedicated to narratives of sexual harassment in the field of communication (Wood, 1992).

Hegemony is roughly defined as the pressure that nondominant members of a society experience to conform to the standards and expectations of dominant members of society. This pressure often causes nondominant members to participate in their own oppression by adhering to social expectations. Hegemonic resistance occurs when, in the very act of resisting dominant behavior, nondominant members inadvertently reinforce the structures that oppress them.

Robin Clair’s (1993) work on how victims frame sexual harassment illustrates the interconnection between social structure and sexual harassment. Clair interviewed women who were targets of sexual harassment. She was interested in the ways they responded to predatory sexual behavior in the workplace. The women reported using a number of strategies to respond to the unwanted behavior. For example, some chose silence, while others privatized the interaction by referencing romantic relationships. According to Clair, by resisting sexual harassment in these ways, these women actually reinforced the social structures that allow sexual harassment to exist in the first place. For example, by privatizing sexual harassment, the women decreased the likelihood that the behavior would be scrutinized in the public domain; the behavior is viewed as private and therefore not a universal organizational issue.

Of course, responding to sexual harassment in a way that preserves the identity of the individual, effectively manages the behavior, and allows for continued employment is extraordinarily complicated. This complexity is enhanced when the multiple subjectivities, or roles, each of us plays is considered as a dynamic part of the response. When targets talk about sexual harassment, they often shift their discourse depending on the role (e.g., mother, worker, manager) from which they speak (Townsley & Geist, 2000). Regardless of the role they are speaking from, according to Townsley and Geist, sexual harassment tends to be normalized and therefore hegemonically reinforced through discourse. This normalization is possible because targets are often caught between competing discourses. They need to maintain a sense of professionalism, despite the predatory sexual behavior. They need to effectively respond in an administrative environment, which naturalizes the behavior and minimizes the opportunity to effectively respond. In this way, targets become trapped in a paradox in which no effective response is available.

While we know a considerable amount about women targets of sexual harassment, very little is known about how male victims manage the behavior. Only one scholarly article in the field of communication has documented the experience of a man who was sexually harassed (Clair, 1998). In this instance, it was a male assistant nurse who was the target of predatory sexual behavior from a cadre of female nurses and nursing assistants. The harassment directed toward “Michael” was primarily verbal and seemed to be focused on identifying and determining his proximity to the ideal male in Western society. For example, his female coworkers asked if he was a virgin, had oral sex, and had engaged in sexual activity with a black woman. Furthermore, Michael claimed that these women asked if he was homosexual. Each of these questions appears to be designed to clarify Michael’s masculinity. Not only does Clair illustrate the heterosexism of these comments, but she also analyzes the racism inherent in these questions. The assumption seemed to be that the ideal white male in Western society would have had sexual relations with a black woman, playing into stereotyped images of black women as highly sexual savages. Clair (1998) writes, “the question now raised by the assistant nurses is whether Michael is ‘man enough’ to have slept with a black woman” (p. 140). As Michael becomes silent, the women ask more and more questions “desperate to label and define him” (p. 140). According to Clair, this man’s heterosexuality was questioned, and the extent of his sexual prowess and fantasies were open areas of speculation for his female colleagues. He was expected to enjoy this type of interaction, and when he didn’t, his masculinity was questioned. When he expressed discomfort to his boss, Michael was told how to acclimate to the harassment—something Michael claimed he could not do. Eventually, Michael was fired. In my experience, male victims are afraid to resist unwanted sexual attention because it brings their masculinity into question. Their entire identity as a man is on trial, making resistance particularly risky for male targets of predatory sexual behavior.

This body of research makes it clear that there is a significant interplay between social processes and individual experiences of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is never simply a private issue between two people. It is a complex discursive problem that is extremely difficult to manage. The complexity of the problem and the difficulty in managing sexual harassment are best understood from an organizational culture perspective.

Sexual Harassment as Organizational Culture

While sexual harassment can certainly occur as an isolated event in an organization, scholars suggest that some cultures are more prone to sexual harassment than others (Dougherty & Smythe, 2004). Consequently, researchers have become increasingly interested in the ways in which discourse shapes the meaning of sexual harassment in a given organization. Of particular interest to this body of research is the way organizational members who are not harassers or targets talk about sexual harassment. The ways organizational members talk about sexual harassment represents a discursive negotiation over how sexual harassment is to be defined, enacted, and resisted in any given organizational milieu (Keyton, Ferguson, & Rhodes, 2001).

Sexual-harassment–prone organizations appear to cross organizational subtypes. For example, military, health care, academic, and correctional facilities have all been found to produce and sustain sexual harassment as part of the culture. But how does communication sustain this behavior, and, conversely, how does communication prevent or resist sexual harassment within an organizational culture? While the answers to these questions have not yet been fully revealed, there are some hints within this emerging body of literature.

While there are some persistent differences between men’s and women’s perceptions of sexual harassment, those differences can be strongly modified by organizational culture. For example, while women typically identify more behaviors as sexual harassment than men, Keyton and colleagues (2001) found that because of unique qualities of one organization’s culture, “men, not women were more sensitive to inappropriate socialsexual behavior” (p. 47) in the workplace. Furthermore, while typically women are the targets of sexual harassment, Zak (1994) found that men and women were targeted equally in one transportation agency. This equalopportunity harassment was an attempt by some workers to maintain control of a culture that was becoming culturally integrated. It is clear, then, that the unique qualities of an organizational culture have a strong influence on perceptions and enactment of sexual harassment within that organizational context. While no single factor has been identified that characterizes a sexual-harassmentprone organization, one common thread in many of the scholarly works seems to be the presence of a strong authoritarian management structure. Strong authoritarian management structures attempt to impose a single unified meaning system on its workers, often with a disastrous impact on the workplace culture (Zak, 1994). The relationships between sexual harassment and rigid authoritarian structures have been noted in research on military organizations, health care organizations, and blue-collar work environments. Zak made the most direct link between strong authoritarian management structures and harassment-prone cultures. The primary disadvantage of an authoritarian style of management is the inflexibility in adapting to organizational change. Because authoritarian managers tend to have a singular, rigid vision of the organization, there is no way provided for a new discourse community to develop. For example, AVTA, a vehicle maintenance unit of a larger organization had no discursive structure to use when adapting to demographic diversification. As a result, the “bully boys,” those who saw themselves as the guardians of the original culture, began a systematic series of assaults on newcomers that ranged from racial to sexual harassment. While not all sexual-harassment–prone organizations have rigid authoritarian structures, it seems clear that rigid authoritarianism can provide the conditions that nurture sexual harassment in a given culture.

So how does an organizational culture become prone to sexual harassment? Of critical importance to answering this question is recognizing that organizational culture does not develop in a vacuum. Instead, the idiosyncrasies of a given culture develop to meet a functional need of its members. In other words, organizational cultures do something for the workers. Sometimes, such as in the case of sexual harassment, the behavior can be both functional and dysfunctional. According to Dougherty (2001), sexual harassment in harassment-prone organizations tends to be functional for dominant members of the organization. For example, for men in one health care organization, inappropriate sexual behavior was used as a coping mechanism for stress, as a way of showing care to colleagues and as a means of creating and demonstrating camaraderie. However, for the women in this organization, this same behavior was not functional and for many was actually dysfunctional. Dougherty recommends that to effectively manage sexual harassment, it is necessary to identify how the behavior functions in the organizational culture and then to find an alternative means of managing that function. For example, finding an alternative means of managing stress could reduce the functionality of sexual harassment in a high-stress organization. For example, health care organizations are historically high-stress environments where an error in judgment can have disastrous outcomes. Staffing shortages, problematic scheduling, and notoriously low salaries enhance the stress level in health care settings. Not surprisingly, nurses and other health care workers have consistently told me about the high-stress environments in which they work. One strategy for decreasing stress might be more manageable and equitable scheduling so that health care workers can have an adequate amount of time and space to decompress. Furthermore, exercise has been shown to help workers manage chronic stress. By creating exercise facilities and yoga classes, it would be possible to establish conditions where workers can learn to manage their stress in productive and functional ways. By productively managing stress, it is possible that the function served by sexual harassment would cease to be an issue and this destructive behavior could also be managed productively.

Because sexual harassment tends to function in some important way in sexual-harassment–prone organizations, experiences with predatory sexual behavior in these organizations tend to be particularly intense, profuse, and strange. For example, the bully boys in Zak’s (1994) study would simulate sexual intercourse with other men as they bent over an engine for repairs. One man claimed, “I guess after you’re humped 40 times, you’re accepted as a mechanic” (p. 291). In another instance, a maintenance worker declared that he was “captain of the butt check team” and that a female worker could not leave the room until he “checked her butt” (Dougherty & Atkinson, 2006). In another large sexual-harassment–prone organization, the butt of one woman was grabbed by her African American boss, who asked, “Have you ever made chocolate love?” (Dougherty et al, in press). It is important to understand that sexual harassment is not mundane, ordinary, or typical in any way. The behaviors are contextually weird and outside the scope of the relationship being breeched. This is particularly true in organizations that nurture this type of behavior.

Given the nature of sexual-harassment–prone cultures, it is important to ask how cultures can develop to resist the enactment of these behaviors. While a number of scholars have examined organizational cultures that are infused with sexual harassment, less is known about those cultures that resist sexual harassment in the environment. One case study of such a culture does provide some insight. Dougherty and Smythe (2004) suggest that to effectively resist cultures of sexual harassment, men and women must be equally committed to treating each other with respect. In one academic organization, when an outsider sexually harassed three members of a department, members responded by listening to the stories told by the women, supporting the women, and rejecting the outsider by ridiculing him. In an organization such as this one, sexual harassment is unlikely to be tolerated. While the outsider’s behaviors were likely functional in his own workplace, they were viewed as intolerable and crude in this academic unit.

It is clear that organizational cultures can both encourage and resist sexual harassment. Strong authoritarian structures, widespread predatory sexual behavior, and sexual behavior that functions in some important way for dominant members of the organization, all appear to characterize an organization prone to sexual harassment. Hidden within each of the characteristics is an overlooked but singularly important issue in sexual harassment. Researchers and organizational members generally agree that sexual harassment is not about sex. It is about power.

Sexual Harassment and Power

What is power? This term is used so frequently in Western society that the meaning seems like common sense. However, scholars have repeatedly found multiple types of power operating in organizations, particularly when it comes to sexual harassment. For example, there is power as a resource to use, power as traditional hierarchical control, power as patriarchy, power as social roles, and power as physical strength. If sexual harassment is about power, then how one defines power would very clearly affect the experience with this behavior.

Dougherty (2006) identified some ways in which different definitions of “power” can radically change the way organizational members identify sexual harassment. In a study examining the discourse of members in a health care organization, Dougherty used a complex qualitative research design to identify how men and women talk about sexual harassment. First, three focus groups of men and three focus groups of women from a large health care organization were conducted. Each individual was then interviewed separately and asked to describe what happened in the focus group discussion. This allowed those who were more silent to speak up, and it allowed participants to discuss any unexpressed concerns and reservations. Following these interviews, three mixed-gender focus groups were conducted, again followed by individual interviews. The participants in this study invariably agreed that sexual harassment is about power. However, the ways women and men defined power were radically different. Men tended to define power in more hierarchically fixed terms. In other words, they believed that people have power as a product of their placement in the organizational hierarchy. The higher in the organizational hierarchy, the more power a person has. Those who define sexual-harassmentrelated power as hierarchically bound tend to have a very narrow understanding of who can be a sexual harasser. For these people, only those in hierarchically superior positions (such as a boss) can sexually harass because only these people have power.

On the other hand, other people, particularly women, also claimed that sexual harassment is about power. However, they tended to define power in a more fluid manner. Power for these people is a relational construct. This means that we create and enact power with others. These folks believed that we “give” power, “take” power, and relinquish power to others. So for these people, a boss may or may not be more powerful than an employee, depending on the nature of the relationship. Furthermore, because anybody can have power, bosses, coworkers, and even underlings can engage in acts of sexual harassment.

Now, imagine a conversation between “Person A,” who defines sexual-harassment-related power as hierarchical, and “Person B,” who defines sexual-harassment-related power as relational. Person A says that “sexual harassers abuse power at work.” Person B says, “I totally agree.” These two people think that they understand and agree with each other. However, Person A was talking only about bosses because only bosses have power. Person B thought that Person A was talking about all members of an organization who engage in sexually inappropriate behavior. By moving beyond the words used and exploring the underlying meanings, it becomes clear that the agreement reached by Person A and Person B was an illusion.

Because different definitions of power shape what sexual harassment means, who can sexually harass, and how victims should respond, a discursive approach to power is a useful way to understand this phenomenon. If, on the other hand, researchers begin with a preset definition of power, they lose the ability to understand the experiences of sexual harassment by everyday people. For example, Wayne (2000) compared two definitions of power to determine which is most significant during an adjudication process. The organizational definition of power views power as acquired through the organizational hierarchy. On the other hand, the sociocultural model defines power as disparities in privilege based on membership in different social-demographic groups such as sex, race, sexual preference, and age. The author found that neither definition of power adequately explained the findings. Consequently, she had to speculate about the function of a third model—the rolediscrepant model of power. Had the author asked study participants to define power or to describe a powerful person at work, her findings would have been richer and more conclusive.

Managing Sexual Harassment

There is no easy answer for how to manage sexual harassment in the workplace. The behavior is strange and irrational. Consequently, simple training is unlikely to resolve the problem. Instead, a more complex and cohesive approach is necessary that addresses sexual harassment at every level of society.

Social Level

Sexual harassment is at its roots, a social phenomenon. The sexism and coercive behavior seen in sexual harassment are infused throughout society. Children, especially boys, are taught from an early age that they are “different” from and better than girls (Grauerholz, 1994). I believe that people are so concerned that their sons might become homosexual that they systematically train boys to be misogynists. Yet it seems unlikely that heterosexuality is that fragile. If playing with a doll “makes” a boy “gay,” then he probably was not heterosexual to begin with.

Boys and girls are carefully and specifically trained to be different from each other. They are praised when they are successful and punished when they fail to achieve and maintain this difference. This is not to suggest that boys and girls are the same. However, society tends to focus on the differences while ignoring the vast array of similarities between boys and girls. As the parent of two young children, a girl and a boy, I have been able to observe this phenomenon firsthand. The sex differentiation in behavior toward children is inescapable. For example, my daughter is constantly praised for her appearance. People in the mall stop her and say, “What a pretty dress, aren’t you a pretty girl?” It is fairly rare for people to admire her for her behavior, intelligence, sense of humor, or sense of compassion. Yet to me, these are her outstanding characteristics. On the other hand, people rarely comment on my son’s appearance, focusing instead on his energy, intelligence, and sense of humor. One of the more odd things people say about my son is that “he is all boy.” I have always found this statement perplexing. What if he isn’t all boy? What does a “part boy” look like? If they knew that my son was caring and compassionate, would people still say he was “all boy”? Or would they say, in that knowing way, “he’s part girl.”

It may surprise some folks to learn that children do not differentiate between male and female behavior in the same way as adults. This does not mean that they are confused about their gender. It simply means that they have not yet been trained to identify themselves in opposition to others. For example, 2-year-old boys like to wear their Mommy’s shoes and carry purses. My children’s day care has a dressup box, and I have repeatedly observed boys and girls dressing in women’s shoes and toting around purses. I have also seen parents freak out when they see their sons wearing “women’s clothes.” Along the same lines, one of my graduate students told me about a friend of hers who was the mother of a young boy. One day the mother caught her son playing with Barbie. She told her son, “Do not play with those dolls. Those are yucky girl toys. Boys don’t play with yucky girl toys.” This woman was quite proud that her son stopped playing with girl toys. She did not seem to realize that she has also trained her boy to believe that girls are “yucky” and therefore inferior and to be disdained. This type of attitude toward women is magnified in the enactment of gendered crimes such as rape and sexual harassment. Consequently, this type of differentiating behavior needs to be stopped. Instead, parents need to stop reinforcing stereotypes and accept the array of age-appropriate behavior that enriches the lives of children.

Organizational Level

Because sexual harassment occurs in organizational settings, organizational leaders have a responsibility to create an environment that limits the likelihood that sexual harassment will occur. Organizations have a responsibility to prevent sexual harassment for a number of reasons. First, sexual harassment is toxic to the organizational environment. Employees become unhappy, and turnover increases. Second, sexual harassment is illegal. For that reason alone, organizations should try to prevent sexual harassment from occurring. Finally, organizational leaders should try to prevent sexual harassment simply because it is hurtful to the victims and their families. In other words, they should prevent the behavior because it is the ethically correct thing to do.

While there are many actions that managers can take to minimize the possibility of sexual harassment, three strategies will be highlighted here. First, managers need to emulate the appropriate behavior. If a manager uses sexually inappropriate behavior, it is more likely that other organizational members will follow that person’s lead. Second, organization-wide training is necessary. Having a policy or simply training managers about sexual harassment is inadequate. In my experience, some of the worst cases of sexual harassment come from members at the bottom of the organizational hierarchy. A word of caution is necessary. Many organizational members will strongly resist this type of training. I’ve heard of organizational members who go to the training and sit with their backs to the trainer. Others read books, do other work, or text message friends. Despite this type of resistance, organization-wide training sends a clear message that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. Finally, organizational managers need to encourage a culture that rejects harassment of any kind. A culture in which people monitor their own behavior is ideal and needs to be protected at all costs.

Organizational Cohort Level

All members of an organization have a stake in preventing sexual harassment. Just as one bad tooth can cause the entire mouth to hurt, sexual harassment has a diffuse and negative impact on the workplace environment. Of course, the problem that organizational members face is that it is sometimes hard to tell if a behavior is sexual harassment. What constitutes sexual harassment to some may be flirting to others (Dougherty, Kramer, Klatzke, & Rogers, in press). Nonetheless, coworkers should be alert for potentially unwanted sexual attention and seek advice from their personnel department. A short conversation with either the harasser or the target may also be productive. At the minimum, it may be useful to document the behavior so that future charges can be corroborated.

Men may be particularly important allies in preventing sexual harassment—especially when the sexual harassment targets women. While men tend to be the perpetrators, most men are not sexual harassers. They are caring and concerned citizens of the organization. They also tend to have a powerful voice because of the extra status afforded some men because of their sex. Dougherty and Smythe (2004) made this argument in their case study of sexual harassment in an academic organization:

Instead of treating white men as the enemy, it would be far more productive to attempt to understand how they may be part of the solution to sexual harassment. While acknowledging that it is the dominant white male privilege that often encourages sexual harassment in organizations, it is also important to identify ways that white men can participate in preventing sexual harassment. Scholars and practitioners should start with the assumption that white men want to do what is right. They have a human capacity for love and care and should be given an opportunity to protect their colleagues. White men are privileged as organizational insiders and therefore have an opportunity to confront sexual harassers in unique ways. (p. 314)

Although Dougherty and Smythe’s (2004) conclusions are drawn from a study looking at the reactions of white men to a case of sexual harassment, this argument should be extended to all men regardless of race, age, ethnicity, or sexual preference. There are many productive ways for men to act as agents of change. It is necessary to encourage these actions.

Targets of Sexual Harassment

The shock that sexual harassment could happen to them often prevents targets from responding effectively. Because we associate being a victim with being weak and passive, most people do not want to believe that they could be victims. As a result, when sexual harassment occurs, these people have no real schemas for how to manage the behavior and respond effectively. People are typically perplexed regarding why they were targeted because, after all, they don’t act like victims; they are too strong, too assertive, too mature, and so on, to be victims of sexual harassment. Consequently, people rarely have a realistic plan for how they will behave if they are targeted. Because they do not have a realistic victim schema for how to behave, most people freeze, resorting to standard politeness norms instead of effectively confronting the behavior.

While some people have no schema for how to respond to sexual harassment, others have unrealistic schema, such as believing that they should physically attack the perpetrator. This type of simplistic schema is bound to fail because it does not account for the interpersonal and social dynamics in society and in the workplace. For example, most women will not attack a sexual harasser because he is typically physically stronger and because they will likely lose their job. Instead, it is important for people—especially women—to understand that sexual harassment could easily happen to them and to develop complex schemas for how to handle the behavior and manage their feelings if and when it occurs.


Sexual harassment is a destructive workplace process that negatively affects the organization on every level. It is important to understand how to manage this problem, not only to maintain the productivity of the organization but also to create more humanistic and satisfying places to work. People spend a large bulk of their time and emotional energy at work. This experience should be as enjoyable as possible, and at the very minimum, working should not be an ongoing, painful saga. For those in sexual-harassment–prone organizations and for those who face predatory sexual behavior at work, sexual harassment is ongoing and painful.

Sexual harassment is not a simple construct that can be understood simply by measuring the psychological properties of the individuals involved. It is important to understand the discursive properties involved in enacting and resisting this behavior. Sexual harassment is highly complex, involving the dynamic interplay not just of the target and harasser but of all members of the organization. By examining the relationship between communication, larger social structures such as hegemony, sex-role expectations, organizational culture, and organizational power, it is possible to view sexual harassment as a larger social phenomenon.


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