" DISCLAIMER: The ILO does not take responsibility for content presented on this web portal that is presented in any language other than English, which is the language used for the initial production and peer-review of original content."
Historically, the sexual harassment of female workers has been ignored, denied, made to seem trivial, condoned and even implicitly supported, with women themselves being blamed for it (MacKinnon 1978). Its victims are almost entirely women, and it has been a problem since females first sold their labour outside the home.
Although sexual harassment also exists outside the workplace, here it will be taken to denote harassment in the workplace.
Sexual harassment is not an innocent flirtation nor the mutual expression of attraction between men and women. Rather, sexual harassment is a workplace stressor that poses a threat to a woman’s psychological and physical integrity and security, in a context in which she has little control because of the risk of retaliation and the fear of losing her livelihood. Like other workplace stressors, sexual harassment may have adverse health consequences for women that can be serious and, as such, qualifies as a workplace health and safety issue (Bernstein 1994).
In the United States, sexual harassment is viewed primarily as a discrete case of wrongful conduct to which one may appropriately respond with blame and recourse to legal measures for the individual. In the European Community it tends to be viewed rather as a collective health and safety issue (Bernstein 1994).
Because the manifestations of sexual harassment vary, people may not agree on its defining qualities, even where it has been set forth in law. Still, there are some common features of harassment that are generally accepted by those doing work in this area:
When directed towards a specific woman it can involve sexual comments and seductive behaviours, “propositions” and pressure for dates, touching, sexual coercion through the use of threats or bribery and even physical assault and rape. In the case of a “hostile environment”, which is probably the more common state of affairs, it can involve jokes, taunts and other sexually charged comments that are threatening and demeaning to women; pornographic or sexually explicit posters; and crude sexual gestures, and so forth. One can add to these characteristics what is sometimes called “gender harassment”, which more involves sexist remarks that demean the dignity of women.
Women themselves may not label unwanted sexual attention or sexual remarks as harassing because they accept it as “normal” on the part of males (Gutek 1985). In general, women (especially if they have been harassed) are more likely to identify a situation as sexual harassment than men, who tend rather to make light of the situation, to disbelieve the woman in question or to blame her for “causing” the harassment (Fitzgerald and Ormerod 1993). People also are more likely to label incidents involving supervisors as sexually harassing than similar behaviour by peers (Fitzgerald and Ormerod 1993). This tendency reveals the significance of the differential power relationship between the harasser and the female employee (MacKinnon 1978.) As an example, a comment that a male supervisor may believe is complimentary may still be threatening to his female employee, who may fear that it will lead to pressure for sexual favours and that there will be retaliation for a negative response, including the potential loss of her job or negative evaluations.
Even when co-workers are involved, sexual harassment can be difficult for women to control and can be very stressful for them. This situation can occur where there are many more men than women in a work group, a hostile work environment is created and the supervisor is male (Gutek 1985; Fitzgerald and Ormerod 1993).
National data on sexual harassment are not collected, and it is difficult to obtain accurate numbers on its prevalence. In the United States, it has been estimated that 50% of all women will experience some form of sexual harassment during their working lives (Fitzgerald and Ormerod 1993). These numbers are consistent with surveys conducted in Europe (Bustelo 1992), although there is variation from country to country (Kauppinen-Toropainen and Gruber 1993). The extent of sexual harassment is also difficult to determine because women may not label it accurately and because of underreporting. Women may fear that they will be blamed, humiliated and not believed, that nothing will be done and that reporting problems will result in retaliation (Fitzgerald and Ormerod 1993). Instead, they may try to live with the situation or leave their jobs and risk serious financial hardship, a disruption of their work histories and problems with references (Koss et al. 1994).
Sexual harassment reduces job satisfaction and increases turnover, so that it has costs for the employer (Gutek 1985; Fitzgerald and Ormerod 1993; Kauppinen-Toropainen and Gruber 1993). Like other workplace stressors, it also can have negative effects on health that are sometimes quite serious. When the harassment is severe, as with rape or attempted rape, women are seriously traumatized. Even where sexual harassment is less severe, women can have psychological problems: they may become fearful, guilty and ashamed, depressed, nervous and less self-confident. They may have physical symptoms such as stomach-aches, headaches or nausea. They may have behavioural problems such as sleeplessness, over- or undereating, sexual problems and difficulties in their relations with others (Swanson et al. 1997).
Both the formal American and informal European approaches to combating harassment provide illustrative lessons (Bernstein 1994). In Europe, sexual harassment is sometimes dealt with by conflict resolution approaches that bring in third parties to help eliminate the harassment (e.g., England’s “challenge technique”). In the United States, sexual harassment is a legal wrong that provides victims with redress through the courts, although success is difficult to achieve. Victims of harassment also need to be supported through counselling, where needed, and helped to understand that they are not to blame for the harassment.
Prevention is the key to combating sexual harassment. Guidelines encouraging prevention have been promulgated through the European Commission Code of Practice (Rubenstein and DeVries 1993). They include the following: clear anti-harassment policies that are effectively communicated; special training and education for managers and supervisors; a designated ombudsperson to deal with complaints; formal grievance procedures and alternatives to them; and disciplinary treatment of those who violate the policies. Bernstein (1994) has suggested that mandated self-regulation may be a viable approach.
Finally, sexual harassment needs to be openly discussed as a workplace issue of legitimate concern to women and men. Trade unions have a critical role to play in helping place this issue on the public agenda. Ultimately, an end to sexual harassment requires that men and women reach social and economic equality and full integration in all occupations and workplaces.
The nature, prevalence, predictors and possible consequences of workplace violence have begun to attract the attention of labour and management practitioners, and researchers. The reason for this is the increasing occurrence of highly visible workplace murders. Once the focus is placed on workplace violence, it becomes clear that there are several issues, including the nature (or definition), prevalence, predictors, consequences and ultimately prevention of workplace violence.
Definition and Prevalence of Workplace Violence
The definition and prevalence of workplace violence are integrally related.
Consistent with the relative recency with which workplace violence has attracted attention, there is no uniform definition. This is an important issue for several reasons. First, until a uniform definition exists, any estimates of prevalence remain incomparable across studies and sites. Secondly, the nature of the violence is linked to strategies for prevention and interventions. For example, focusing on all instances of shootings within the workplace includes incidents that reflect the continuation of family conflicts, as well as those that reflect work-related stressors and conflicts. While employees would no doubt be affected in both situations, the control the organization has over the former is more limited, and hence the implications for interventions are different from those situations in which workplace shootings are a direct function of workplace stressors and conflicts.
Some statistics suggest that workplace murders are the fastest growing form of murder in the United States (for example, Anfuso 1994). In some jurisdictions (for example, New York State), murder is the modal cause of death in the workplace. Because of statistics such as these, workplace violence has attracted considerable attention recently. However, early indications suggest that those acts of workplace violence with the highest visibility (for example, murder, shootings) attract the greatest research scrutiny, but also occur with the least frequency. In contrast, verbal and psychological aggression against supervisors, subordinates and co-workers are far more common, but gather less attention. Supporting the notion of a close integration between definitional and prevalence issues, this would suggest that what is being studied in most cases is aggression rather than violence in the workplace.
Predictors of Workplace Violence
A reading of the literature on the predictors of workplace violence would reveal that most of the attention has been focused on the development of a “profile” of the potentially violent or “disgruntled” employee (for example, Mantell and Albrecht 1994; Slora, Joy and Terris 1991), most of which would identify the following as the salient personal characteristics of a disgruntled employee: white, male, aged 20-35, a “loner”, probable alcohol problem and a fascination with guns. Aside from the problem of the number of false-positive identifications this would lead to, this strategy is also based on identifying individuals predisposed to the most extreme forms of violence, and ignores the larger group involved in most of the aggressive and less violent workplace incidents.
Going beyond “demographic” characteristics, there are suggestions that some of the personal factors implicated in violence outside of the workplace would extend to the workplace itself. Thus, inappropriate use of alcohol, general history of aggression in one’s current life or family of origin, and low self-esteem have been implicated in workplace violence.
A more recent strategy has been to identify the workplace conditions under which workplace violence is most likely to occur: identifying the physical and psychosocial conditions in the workplace. While the research on psychosocial factors is still in its infancy, it would appear as though feelings of job insecurity, perceptions that organizational policies and their implementation are unjust, harsh management and supervision styles, and electronic monitoring are associated with workplace aggression and violence (United States House of Representatives 1992; Fox and Levin 1994).
Cox and Leather (1994) look to the predictors of aggression and violence in general in their attempt to understand the physical factors that predict workplace violence. In this respect, they suggest that workplace violence may be associated with perceived crowding, and extreme heat and noise. However, these suggestions about the causes of workplace violence await empirical scrutiny.
Consequences of workplace violence
The research to date suggests that there are primary and secondary victims of workplace violence, both of which are worthy of research attention. Bank tellers or store clerks who are held up and employees who are assaulted at work by current or former co-workers are the obvious or direct victims of violence at work. However, consistent with the literature showing that much human behaviour is learned from observing others, witnesses to workplace violence are secondary victims. Both groups might be expected to suffer negative effects, and more research is needed to focus on the way in which both aggression and violence at work affect primary and secondary victims.
Prevention of workplace violence
Most of the literature on the prevention of workplace violence focuses at this stage on prior selection, i.e., the prior identification of potentially violent individuals for the purpose of excluding them from employment in the first instance (for example, Mantell and Albrecht 1994). Such strategies are of dubious utility, for ethical and legal reasons. From a scientific perspective, it is equally doubtful whether we could identify potentially violent employees with sufficient precision (e.g., without an unacceptably high number of false-positive identifications). Clearly, we need to focus on workplace issues and job design for a preventive approach. Following Fox and Levin’s (1994) reasoning, ensuring that organizational policies and procedures are characterized by perceived justice will probably constitute an effective prevention technique.
Research on workplace violence is in its infancy, but gaining increasing attention. This bodes well for the further understanding, prediction and control of workplace aggression and violence.