The Consequences of Sexual Harassment

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Sexual harassment among employees has been and continues to be one of the most prevalent and persistent forms of harassment in the workplace. In 2015 alone, EEOC received astonishing 28,000 cases of employees being harassed at their place of work both public and private sectors (EEOC, 2016). Sexual harassment accounted for a whopping 45% of the charges received that year while 34%, 19%, 15%, 13%, and 5% were related to disability, age, country of origin, and religion, respectively (EEOC, 2016).  Consistently, Boissonnault et al. (2017) found out that the career prevalence among healthcare providers stood at 84%. In light of these alarming statistics, the current study attempts to decipher the meaning of sexual harassment among employees, determine its consequences on employees, and identify potential strategies for eliminating the problem.

Meaning of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment refers to “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature” (EEOC, 2016). The EEOC stipulates three criteria a conduct must meet to qualify as sexual harassment. First, the conduct must be explicitly or implicitly defined as a condition which a person must fulfill or submit to before or during employment. Second, an individual’s choice to submit to or object to such practice influences employment decisions that affect them. Third, the behavior must purposefully have a detrimental impact on an employees’ performance, mental health, career advancement, as well as create “an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment” (EEOC, 2016).

Several studies have explored the manifestation of sexual workplace harassment. Among physical therapist clinicians and students, for instance, sexual harassment may involve inappropriate patient sexual behavior, including “leering, sexual remarks, deliberate touching, indecent exposure, and sexual assault” (Boissonnault et al., 2017). Common forms of sexual misconduct reported in the research such as actual or attempted rape or sexual assault, unwanted pressure for sexual favors, inappropriate deliberate touching, leaning over, cornering, or pinching, and unwelcome sexual looks or gestures, insistent inquiry into an individual’s sexual life, unwanted pressure for dates, sexual teasing, jokes, or remarks, inappropriate names (e.g. girl, hunk, babe, or honey), giving out personal gifts, inappropriate gestures (e.g. hugging, kissing, patting, or stroking, or sexually suggestive signals), and standing close or brushing up against a person, among others” (Kensbock et al., 2015).

The perpetrator or victim of sexual harassment in the work environment may be any gender or sex. Although male employees are overwhelmingly responsible for sexual harassment against their female peers at work, male employees also harass other fellow male employees (McDonald & Charlesworth, 2016). Staff members are also sexually mistreated by female colleagues. Women may also harass their female peers. Male employees encounter different forms of sexual harassment from their male and female co-workers (Holland et al., 2016). These fascinating observations indicate that both female and male cause or suffer unwelcome behaviors on the basis of their gender.

Sexual harassment may be verbal or physical or violent or nonviolent. In a recent a cross‐sectional survey, verbal abuse accounted for the higher (63.8%) percentage of the total cases reported, followed by violent threats, physical violence, sexual harassment, and bullying which accounted for 41.6%, 22.3%, 19.7%, and 9.7%, respectively (Park, Cho, & Hong, 2015). These statistics show that sexual harassment can take many different forms in the workplace.

Anyone can perpetrate sexual harassment towards employees at the workplace, including a supervisor, co-worker, or employment agent, and even customers. In their cross-sectional survey, Park, Cho, and Hong (2015) found out that patients are the primary perpetrators of overall harassment towards nurses, followed by physicians and patients’ families. Friborg  et al. (2017) found  that employees encounter sexual harassment from customers, co-workers, supervisors, and even their subordinates (Friborg et al., 2017). Consistently, Schultz (2018) affirms that those employees can be sexually mistreated by their bosses or “power brokers,” colleagues, clients, and their subordinates. These findings indicate that employees can face sexual mistreatment from all angles and any individual they interact within the workplace.

Sexual harassment can take place within or outside the organization. Park, Cho, and Hong (2015) established that physical violence, threats of violence, and verbal abuse were frequent in the intensive care units (ICUs) while sexual harassment and bullying were frequently reported in operating rooms. In an attempt to illustrate how sexual harassment is leveraged to equalize power, McLaughlin, Uggen, and Blackstone (2018) argue that sexual harassment occurs in “a wide variety of settings, from construction sites to classrooms.”  Lastly, there may be or no witnesses during the incidence, both the victim and harasser may be unaware of the offensive nature of the behavior, and the victim may or may not suffer economic and/or emotional stress (EEOC, 2016).

Consequences of Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment can cause varied implication on individual employee and organizational outcomes. Exposure to workplace sexual harassment can have a devastating effect on the overall health and well-being of the victims. Employees who are sexually harassed by their clients have been found to exhibit a higher level of “depressive symptoms” (Friborg et al., 2017). Similarly, workers who encounter sexual molestation from their coworkers, supervisors or subordinates have been found to exhibit “a higher mean level of depressive symptoms” compared to those mistreated by customers. Workers who are sexually harassed may also suffer depression and posttraumatic stress (Buchanan, Settles, Wu, & Hayashino, 2018). Exposure to supervisor sexual mistreatment may have a direct or indirect negative effect on the victim’s “romantic relationship adjustment and romantic relationship efficacy through target anger” (Dionisi & Barling, 2015).

Sexual harassment can exacerbate stuff turnover. Studies have established that workplace sexual mistreatment has a positive association with employee turnover intentions (Salman, Abdullah, & Saleem, 2016). Also, psychological distress resulting from exposure to ineffective anti-sexual molestation practices at work decimates employee engagement, in turn, reinforcing turnover intentions (Jiang et al., 2015). A more recent research into the impact of abuse supervisor experiences in the hospitality and touring sectors in Ecuador reveals that working with abuse supervisors increases employees’ intentions to leave. The study showed that employees are more likely to exit when working with abusive supervisors compared to abusive co-workers. These studies illuminate the role of sexual harassment in an organization’s ability to attract and retain better talent.

In addition to greater turnover intentions, a comparison of Pakistani and U.S. employees’ discovered that employees from both countries who work in such hostile work environment, particularly those who are sexually harassed, have also been found to exhibit a higher rate of absenteeism and lower job satisfaction compared to those working in safe and welcome environment (Merkin & Shah, 2014). Pakistani employees who faced sexual harassment in the workplace reported higher absenteeism and lower job satisfaction than those in the U.S. which can be explained by higher sexual harassment in the country. Consistently, managers who adopt ethical leadership behaviors have been found to not only enhance employees’ organizational commitment (reduce turnover intention) and willingness to report unethical issues in the workplace but also reduce overall absenteeism (Hassan, Wright, & Yukl, 2014).

The relationship between sexual harassment and poor employee performance is widely documented in the previous literature. In addition to physical and psychological trauma, sexual harassment among employees causes a serious negative impact on employees’ productivity (Haruna et al., 2016). Similarly, exposure to customer sexual harassment has a negative effect on the performance of frontline employees.  A recent file field survey of 359 supervisor-subordinate dyads in a chain of restaurants in China showed that frontline employees who are sexually harassed by clients report poor service performance a relationship that was mediated by difficulties in maintaining display rules (Liu, Kwan, & Chiu, 2014).A similar investigation examining how sexual harassment affects “proactive customer service performance” provided evidence confirming the existence of a positive relationship between the two variables (Li, Chen, Lyu, & Qiu, 2016). Li, Chen, Lyu, and Qiu (2016) suggest that sexual mistreatment negatively affect both job engagement and proactive customer service performance. They also identify that employees who are very sensitive to interpersonal mistreatment are more susceptible to sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment can have serious legal consequences to the perpetrators and the employer. It is imperative to note that the EEOC enforces strict regulations prohibiting sexual harassment and other forms of workplace harassment (EEOC, 2016). Notably, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees and job applicants from discriminative practices on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, and other “protected classes (EEOC, 2016). Violation of Title VII and other EEOC laws and regulation can attract costly fines and penalties. Covered entities can be held responsible for sexual harassment in the workplace and if found guilty they may be required by law to not only compensate the victims of this mistreatment but also incur costs associated with lost wages, legal fees, counseling, days absent, and other expenses (McDonald, Charlesworth, & Graham, 2015).  Employers and HR managers are thus expected to ensure fairness from hiring to performance appraisal, talent management, compensation, termination and even demotion (McDonald, Charlesworth, & Graham, 2015). Equally, individual employees found guilty of sexually harassing may face severe consequences such as strict monitoring, demotion, probation, transfer, citation in the employee's permanent file, termination, financial loses (in terms of fines and penalties), and even imprisonment (McDonald, Charlesworth, & Graham, 2015).

Strategies for Eliminating Workplace Sexual Harassment

Many strategies have been advanced to help organizations curb the problem of sexual harassment in their workplace. Many organizations put in place strict policies defining their stance on sexual harassment and overall workplace harassment (Haruna et al., 2016). Also, many companies implement sexual harassment training to help their human resources better understand what sexual harassment entails, EEOC regulations regarding workplace sexual harassment, compliance with the organization’s policy regarding sexual harassment, reporting sexual harassment incidences at work and cooperating with investigation authorities, and effective ways to foster a safe work environment (EEOC, 2016). Some organizations provide leadership training to enable and encourage their executive managers and supervisors employ ethical leadership in the workplace (Hassan, Wright, & Yukl, 2014). Providing social, financial, and psychological support to employees who face or are vulnerable to sexual harassment may help them to better cope with emotional, physical or economic consequences of the incidence (Buchanan et al., 2018).

Discussion and Conclusion

Sexual harassment remains a highly prevalent and persistent problem in many organizations today. The scope of sexual harassment has evolved considerably to become a very complex and dynamic concept. Today the meaning and scope of sexual harassment among employees go beyond and above the simple definition provided by the EEOC to include new forms. As established in the research findings, both men and women may perpetrator or fall victims of sexual harassment, but men are largely responsible for most of the incidences. Gender power inequality predisposes men to engage in sexual harassment compared to their women counterparts (Abrahams et a., 2015). Consistently, research shows that treating male patients has been established to be a predictor of sexual harassment in the healthcare setting (Boissonnault et al., 2017). Employees can be sexually mistreated by their colleagues, supervisors, subordinates, and customers not only within the workplace but also outside the organization.

Sexual harassment has far-reaching consequences on individual and organizations. On one hand, individual perpetrators risk facing heavy punishments such as demotion, losing their job, and financial loses associated with competing for the victims of their unwelcome behaviors. On the other hand, organizations may suffer considerably in terms of low employee morale, job satisfaction, organizational commitment, engagement, and higher absenteeism. All these negative outcomes may translate to higher turnover and reduced performance both of which are extremely costly to the organization’s profit and success. Besides that, exposure to sexual harassment may adversely impact employees’ health and well-being both of which may interfere with their job performance. In recognition of the devastating consequences of sexual harassments, organizations have adopted a wide range of strategies to alleviate the menace from their workplace. Some of the anti-sexual harassment measures include developing and communicating a Code of Conduct to employees, providing training on sexual harassment, and providing support to the victims. In conclusion, the high sexual harassment prevalence necessitates organizations, through their HR managers, to develop and enforce stringent anti-sexual harassment policies according to and to train and empower their workers to recognize, avoid and report incidences of sexual harassment, collaborate during an investigation, and foster a safe work environment.

Limitation of the Research and Further Research

The major limitation of this research is the reliance on existing literature. By relying completely on previously published studies, the researcher may not have addressed new trends in sexual harassment manifestation and ways of addressing the problem. Although most of the articles included in the review are relevant to the research topic, some are not peer-reviewed academic journal articles ultimately compromising the validity, reliability, and credibility of the overall research. Although sexual harassment has been widely covered in the previous studies, in-depth research should examine specific forms of sexual harassment perpetrated by various parties identified in the study. Also, more research should decipher the impact of individual forms of sexual harassment on employees’ health and well-being, as well as organizational outcomes.


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October 24, 2023

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