Sexual harassment and victimisation: what happens in the workplace

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Roxane Gervais, Health & Safety Laboratory, UK

Introduction

Sexual harassment and victimisation can be considered a dark side of organisational life (i.e., negative workplace behaviour). Sexual harassment and victimisation are workplace stressors and can result in various health problems, among them mental ill health and cardiovascular diseases due to prolonged stress exposure. They also have more other consequences, such as lower morale, higher absenteeism, job turnover, lower productivity, lower organisational commitment, lower job satisfaction and lower performance. Both men and women could experience sexual harassment. However, it is more commonly reported among women; particularly, among women working in the hotel and restaurant and health care sectors. This article explores these issues within the European Union (EU), and discusses workplace practices that aim to reduce these behaviours.

Understanding sexual harassment/victimisation

Sexual harassment and victimisation, while not limited to the workplace, are actions that could cause undue mental ill health for those at the receiving end; and therefore are stressors within the work environment. To gain a fuller understanding of these actions, it is useful to recognise what sexual harassment and victimisation refers to.

Definition of sexual harassment and victimisation

In the literature there is not a universal definition of what constitutes sexual harassment [1]. One definition that is applicable across the European Union (EU) can be found within EU Directive 2002/73/EC [2], ‘Where any form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature occurs with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person, in particular when creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment'. The EU definition focuses on: a) personal experiences of being subjected to sexual harassment at work and b) awareness of the existence of sexual harassment at the workplace.

The International Labour Organisation [3] defines sexual harassment as: 'any unwanted or unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, in a workplace or in connection with work, which makes a protected person feel humiliated, intimidated, discriminated against or offended. The distress caused by the act or series of acts may be intentional or unintentional. Sexual harassment can be coercive sexual behaviour used to control, influence or affect the job, career or status of a protected person. It can also be manifested when one or more persons submit a protected person, at any level, to offensive behaviour or humiliation on the basis of that protected person's sex or sexuality, even though there may be no apparent impact on the career or employment of the protected person concerned. Sexual harassment can take many forms and may include:

  • deliberate and unsolicited physical contact or unnecessarily close physical proximity;
  • repeated sexually-oriented comments or gestures about the body, appearance or life-style of a protected person;
  • offensive phone calls, letters or e-mail messages;
  • stalking;
  • showing or displaying sexually explicit graphics, cartoons, pictures, photographs or Internet images;
  • questions or insinuations about a protected person's private life;
  • persistent invitations to social activities after the protected person has made it clear they are not welcome; and
  • sexually explicit jokes or propositions.'

The ILO definition covers some of the gestures, actions and behaviours that could make individuals feel uncomfortable and threatened within a particular situation; and are defining characteristics of sexual harassment. As noted above, these actions can be verbal, non-verbal or physical [1].

Victimisation, on the other hand, is clearly seen as 'discrimination against someone because of their involvement in a discrimination complaint either as the complainant or as a witness, or as someone who has previously been accused and found not guilty of harassment' [4]. Sexual harassment and victimisation are within the overall purview of harassment.

European directives and framework agreement

At the European level, the Directives 2000/43/EC and 2002/73/EC are anti-discrimination directives adopted to specifically address racial and sexual harassment in the workplace [5]. Under these directives, any forms of sexual harassment, gender or racial discrimination are viewed as violating the dignity of the person.

The Directive 2002/73/EC [2] was repealed and replaced by the Recast Directive 2006/54/EC, although the same definition of sexual harassment remained [6]. The Recast Directive extends beyond the workplace to include access to employment, vocational training and promotion. Furthermore, the Directive notes that “‘harassment and sexual harassment, as well as any less favourable treatment based on a person’s rejection of or submission to such conduct” constitute discrimination related to sex and are therefore prohibited. EU Member States had until August 15th, 2008 to transpose the Recast Directive into national law. As of 2011, all EU Member States, with the exception of Hungary, Poland and Latvia, have to some extend transposed the Recast Directive into national law [6].

In 2007, a framework agreement on harassment and violence at work was signed by European social partners, including: the European Trade Union Confederation, the Confederation of European Business, the European Association of Craft Small and Medium-sized Enterprises, and the European Centre for Enterprises with Public Participation and of Enterprises of General Economic Interest. This framework agreement, which encompasses sexual harassment, aims to increase awareness and understanding of workplace harassment and violence between employers, workers and their representatives [5]

Risk factors for sexual harassment and victimisation

Due to the various explanations attributed to sexual harassment, it is challenging to measure or quantify it [1] [7]; and as such to make comparisons between countries [7]. Despite this, available data demonstrate some consistencies in socio-demographic characteristics among victims. On average, victims are more likely to be women, under the age of 30, are more likely to be single or divorced, and have a lower level of education [5]. In contrast, harassers are more likely to be men (although there is not a distinct profile), and approximately 50% of harassers work as colleagues and 30% as superiors [1]. One of the reasons proposed for sexual harassment and victimisation is that they may be driven by incivility. This has been described as an occupational health hazard for women [8], and as one of the most damaging barriers for women in achieving career success and job satisfaction [9].

While there are no definitive explanations to account for sexual harassment, some of the proposed organisational factors that may increase sexual harassment include [1]:

Another organisational factor implied to lead to “a heightened likelihood of supervisory bullying and general harassment” is organisational chaos (pg.5) [10]. It refers to an organisational environment in which procedures and policies to encourage effectiveness, civility and mutual respect are not set in place and in which coherent work procedures are substituted by bullying [9]. When the nature and content of work is very physically demanding and consists mainly of a minority workforce [9] this can increase the risk of sexual harassment. In addition, the organisational climate or environmental factors, such as organisational commitment [11], have been shown also to facilitate such behaviours.

Theories of sexual harassment

Researchers have advanced three major theories: male dominance, gender-role spill over and sex-ratio theories [10]. Male dominance focuses on men keeping their power in their organisations by using sexual harassment; while gender-role spill over proposes that as men are used to dealing with women in a subordinate role, in both domestic and social situations, that they then transfer such interactions to the workplace. The third theory of sex ratio centres on the distribution of men to women in workplace. Wherein workplaces with a higher ratio of women to men are more likely to exhibit harassment, when compared to those with fewer women where it is easier for men to maintain power [10]. In addition, over the short-term, when more women enter the workforce, sexual harassment tends to increase [1]. This may reflect a response to a perceived 'threat'. This perceived threat may arise as men may wish to retain their power and privilege within the organisation [12]. These theories are useful, but are not definitive and should be considered together with other factors that are present within organisations.

Sexual harassment within the organisation

The Fifth European Working Conditions Survey [4] revealed that across the EU-27, 1% of workers reported sexual harassment over the previous 12 months. This prevalence is fairly consistent across the different countries, with figures ranging from 0.2% (Lithuania) up to 1.8% (France). However, true prevalence rates may be higher, with victims unwilling to report such experiences due to feeling ashamed, or by downplaying the situation. Various other studies in Slovakia (66.4%), Slovenia (27%), and the Czech Republic (25%) have all reported substantially higher prevalence rates [4]. The FRA Survey of Violence against Women, based on 42,000 women in the EU [13] reported that 21% of women had experienced some form of sexual harassment in the preceding 12 months.

Gender impact

Overall, the reported incidences of sexual harassment are not high. As seen in Figure 1, women aged less than 30 years of age report the highest exposure to sexual harassment. Within each age group, women consistently report higher exposure than their male counterparts [5].

Figure 1: Exposure to sexual harassment by age and gender in the EU-27 (%)

Figure1: Sexual harassment experiences within the EU

There is a general acceptance that female employees are the ones most likely to experience sexual harassment. Across 11 northern Member States (Austria, Belgium, Demark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the UK), over the period 1987-1997, 30% to 50% of this group experienced some form of sexual harassment or unwanted sexual behaviour [1]. However, these types of experiences were not limited to women exclusively, as around 10% of male employees reported also being subjected to sexual harassment or unwanted sexual behaviour when at work [1].

Little is known about same-sex sexual harassment [14], but the available data show that when men are sexual harassed it is mostly done by other men. Whereas this is significantly lower when women sexually harassed other women. More research is needed to look into this pattern, as it is not necessary based on homosexuality [14]; but could be a form of male dominance achieved by 'feminising' other men [10].

Diversity within gender is another area that would benefit from more research to gain a better understanding of sexual assault victimisation among non-Caucasian women and of those with disabilities [15]. For example, studies within the US show that women with disabilities are more likely to suffer from sexual abuse due to their physical and cognitive impairments [15].

Sector impact

Across sectors, women are more likely to be sexually harassed when they work in male-dominated jobs (such as, a police officer, bus or taxi driver), and within traditional 'female' jobs (such as a waitress, nurse, and sales(wo)men) [1]. Women in military settings also report a high occurrence of sexual harassment and rape [16] [17]. One of the reasons for this may relate to the sex ratio theory described above [10].

In general, the hotel and restaurant sector shows the highest reported prevalence of sexual harassment (13% for all employees, [7]). The sectors with the lowest prevalence were agriculture, electricity and construction (all 2% respectively, [7]). The health and education sector has a high prevalence (9%; [7]), and this seems to have an impact on male employees, as a high level of sexual harassment among male healthcare workers has been observed (51%; [1]). A 2014 European wide survey of ([13]) reported that 21% of women in the service sector reported sexual harassment in the previous year. Similar results were observed in a study from Portugal, which found men working in a health centre reported higher levels of sexual harassment than the women [18].

Workers in precarious employment are twice as likely as those in more fixed employment to experience sexual harassment [19] [13]. In general, a higher proportion of women than men work in precarious forms of employment in the EU. This may be another factor to explain why women are more likely to be sexually harassed. In Spain, for example, 18.5% of all women who work report sexual harassment, this percentage increases to 27.1 among women who work with a non-regular employment contract [20] as reported by Di Martino, Hoel & Cooper [21]. Sexual harassment is also commonly reported by workers in low-skilled white collar jobs [5], and by women working in top management (25%), or in professional groups (29%) [13].

Cultural differences may influence how men and women perceive and respond to sexual harassment. For example, sexual harassment in the workplace may be associated with deeply entrenched gender stereotypical attitudes. Whereby, the way of looking at women as objects of sexual desire and accepting that they have a subordinate role in society and in the family, may facilitate or exacerbate the sexual harassment of women at work [22]. This is further strengthened by the patriarchal stereotypes that accept male domination and women's economic and emotional dependence on men, and supports a negative attitude to women as the norm within the work environment [22].

Cost and consequences

There can be both a direct and indirect impact on organisations and workers due to sexual harassment. For example, compensation is one of the key direct costs of sexual harassment. The indirect costs of sexual harassment include: low productivity, high absenteeism, low performance, low morale and job turnover. Quinn, Woskie and Rosenberg [23] observed higher rates of job turnover, sickness absence and lower productivity associated with reports of sexual harassment. Further, the decline in the physical and mental health of the harassed workers [24] may lead to increased absenteeism, lower work satisfaction, a poorer working climate and lower motivation [1], as well as higher levels of job and work withdrawal (e.g., not connecting with colleagues; [25]). See Psychosocial risks and workers health for more information on the impact of psychosocial risks on worker’s health.

Victimisation, as experienced through negative workplace behaviours, has led to employee ill health, in the form of poor mental health and cardiovascular health [26]. Another consequence is lower organisational commitment [12]. Most importantly, these negative outcomes are not dependent on sustained and prolonged sexual harassment; as even low-level, but frequent incidences could were found to have a negative impact on a sample of working women [27].

These negative repercussions are not work specific and for those being harassed, they are more likely to experience psychosomatic symptoms, loss of self-esteem, with the impact intruding on their private life [1]. Female workers in the EU-27 who had experienced sexual harassment reported feeling anger (45%), annoyance (41%), embarrassment (36%) fearful (29%) and ashamed (20%). Furthermore, 20% of female victims reported feelings of vulnerability, 14% reported anxiety and 13% reported a loss of self-confidence [13]. It is important to assess the gender effect as well; men sexually harassed are more likely than women to abuse alcohol [28] [29]. Higher levels of sexual harassment showed stronger levels of depression and mental ill health for men, than for women [30].

Prevention and positive practises

Due to the negative consequences outlined above, it is important to manage and prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. The EU Directive 2002/73/EC [2] prohibits sexual harassment and asks Member States to encourage employers to facilitate equal treatment for men and women. Health and well-being is a key component for effective working life [7], and this is disrupted when sexual harassment and victimisation occur. In order to eliminate sexual harassment, it is necessary to know what drives such behaviour. However, as the reasons are not explicit, this requires more empirical investigation to understand why these behaviours occur [14]. These investigations should include both quantitative and qualitative methods, and should include researchers with expertise in sexual assault and of the women (and men) to whom this occur [15]. The further understanding of the factors and mechanisms that underpin sexual harassment and victimisation in the workplace are essential to inform the development of effective organisational policies and workplace practices.

Although there is no specific method or practice that eliminates sexual harassment totally at present, organisations may prefer to implement a more assertive approach to deal with such behaviours. However, this may result in women being in an uncomfortable position; as women and men tend to revert to gender-stereotyped ways when challenged, with women emoting and men acting [14].

An organisational culture that promotes a positive social climate (employee-oriented instead of job-oriented) and that is responsive to female workers who wish to balance their work and personal obligations is less likely to have sexual harassment concerns [1].

One method involves organisational change that is driven by the employees, the 'bottom-up' approach, to promote a culture of mutual respect, inclusive of the cyclical elements of [31]:

  • problem recognition;
  • employee learning and development; and
  • evaluation of change effectiveness.

While this people-centred approach focuses on an organisational 'informal' system, this will work together with more formal processes (such as, anti-harassment policies [31]). Some of the recommendations that have been promoted to ensure a successful policy are [1] [32]:

  • a change of working culture, with the issue of sexual harassment being taken seriously;
  • providing information about sexual harassment to the entire workforce on a regular basis, and training involved persons;
  • management support;
  • confidential counselling services and grievance committees with the necessary facilities, not directly related to the management; and
  • grievance procedures specifically related to sexual harassment; and sexual harassment policy should be a part of equal opportunities policy.

Prevention and positive practices could occur at both a micro (individual, employee, organisational) and macro (governmental) level. The governmental approach is highlighted earlier in this article, and shows that governments regulate against such negative practices. At a micro/individual-level, research demonstrates that victims of sexual harassment tend to use coping strategies that are less direct and forceful: such as, avoiding the person doing the harassing or trying to placate the offender [9] [27]. Individuals may use either an active or passive style to cope with these behaviours, and the style adopted depends on and is influenced by individual differences [14].

Any method or combination of methods that are chosen should be continuously assessed for their effectiveness, especially for policy and training [12].

Although general policies are useful, organisations should have in place policies, procedures and practices specific and holistic to their respective organisation. This would mean generating more information on understanding how and why individuals are targeted and how victims cope with workplace harassments; as coping strategies have been shown to buffer the stress associated with such experiences [12] [32].

Future directions for research and assessment of sexual harassment

Although data are available on some aspects of sexual harassment, there are areas that would benefit from further and more in-depth research and assessment [1]:

  • the sexual harassment of homosexuals and lesbians;
  • the sexual harassment of women and men from ethnic minorities;
  • quantitative and qualitative differences between the sexual harassment of men and women;
  • the consequences for the organisations in terms of financial and economic costs;
  • the influence of organisational culture and structure on the occurrence of sexual harassment; and
  • effects of policy measures.

Links for further reading

ACAS – Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. Bullying and harassment at work: a guide for managers and employers. London: Acas. 2009. Available at: [13]

ACAS – Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. Bullying and harassment at work: a guide for employees. London: Acas. 2009. Available at [14]

CIPD – The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, Harassment and Bullying at Work, 2010. Available at: [15]

ESENER – European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks Managing safety and health at work. Available at [16]

Safe Workers, ‘Sexual harassment at work’. Available at: [17]

Feminist Majority Foundation, ‘Sexual harassment fact sheet’. Available at: [18]

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health, ‘Systems and programmes - How to Tackle Psychosocial Issues and Reduce Work-related Stress’. Available at: [19]

References

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