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Understanding and Preventing Workplace Sexual Harassment

With all the stories of high-profile perpetrators and victims of workplace harassment in the news lately, the problem of harassment, especially sexual harassment, is coming onto everyone’s radar. And since April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, it is a good time to become aware of the inappropriate conduct of harassment to help prevent victimization.

As with most things in life, preparedness and precautions taken promote prevention. Let’s take a look at what sexual harassment is and both the behaviors and responses that can lead to a sexual assault. Then we will suggest some precautions you can take to prevent falling victim to such harassment.

Sexual Harassment: A Progression

Sexual harassment in the workplace is, by definition, the unwelcome or unwanted attention of a sexual nature from someone at work that causes discomfort, humiliation, offense or distress, and/or interferes with the job. Most people have a good understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment from years of news exposes and workplace training.

What you might not know is that a large number of cases of sexual harassment are committed by people known to the victim – people the victim interacts with regularly and trusts. A sexual assault or other offensive conduct becomes even more awkward and traumatic when there is a professional trust bond which is violated.

Such workplace predators do not suddenly emerge overnight, right out of the blue. Most sexual assault is committed by individuals through a gradual process of manipulation in a hostile work environment open to harassment and sexual innuendo.

Understanding the Perpetrator in Workplace Harassment

Perpetrators attempt find potential victims through the use of manipulative and interpersonal strategies. Here are some of the behaviors by perpetrators that will help you to identify them.

  • Probing Physical Boundaries – perpetrators of sexual harassment look for employees who demonstrate a willingness or receptivity to being touched and who fail to see that the boundary-violating behavior (for instance, impromptu shoulder massages, etc.) is inappropriate.
  • Testing Tolerances – perpetrators will often use off-color jokes, innuendo, inappropriate language or remarks to watch the reactions of their targeted victims. Employees who are more likely to snicker or smile to such behavior will likely find themselves to make the list as a potential victim.
  • Engaging in Power Plays – perpetrators of sexual harassment often use their status within a power imbalance in the workplace to exploit a relationship with a subordinate. They rely on other co-workers to stay passive and keep silent. These co-workers are financially motivated to downplay, normalize or even ignore the inappropriate behavior of those in power. If the victim tries to call out the inappropriate behavior, the perpetrator will often use shame against the victim, making them look petty and prudish.

Risk Factors For Involvement in Sexual Harassment

Researchers have found that there are several factors in determining which employees are at risk of sexual harassment.

  1. Gender – women are more likely to be harassed in the workplace. Research has found that 43% of women experience sexual harassment in the workplace versus 10% of men. Women are nine times more likely to quit their jobs, five times more likely to transfer, and three times more likely to lose jobs because of sexual harassment.
  2. Job Position – women who are employed in male-dominated industries (construction job, investment banking, medicine) often suffer more intense harassment aimed at forcing them to leave. Also, women in supervisory roles or management roles are 137% more likely to be sexually harassed than women in non-managerial positions. Males in higher positions are more likely to engage in harassing behavior toward female subordinates.
  3. Sexually Permissive Attitudes – research shows that employees who hold sexually permissive attitudes are several times more likely to become involved in sexual harassment, either as a victim or a perpetrator. Men tend to hold more sexually permissive attitudes than women.

Certain office environments also contribute to the potential for sexual harassment. In such environments where obscenities are common, women are up to three times more likely to experience sexual harassment. Where dirty jokes are permitted, they are seven times more likely to become victims.

Preventing Workplace Sexual Harassment

The first step to preventing sexual harassment is to be aware of the behaviors and environment that could lead to distorted boundaries and abusive situations. Understanding the risk factors of victims and the blatant misconduct of perpetrators is key to stopping a sexual assault before it happens.

Working together with management to promote a zero-tolerance policy for perpetrators and a safe and protected environment for victims will also help to minimize sexual harassment. Clear, concrete consequences for sexual misconduct will send a message to potential perpetrators that misconduct will not be tolerated and severe penalties will be levied against the abuser. Providing a safe environment with job protection for victims will allow them to have a voice and come forward and seek help.

By preparing yourself with information on sexual harassment behaviors, by taking the necessary precautions to ensure that inappropriate behavior is minimized, and by working together with your employer to create a zero-tolerance policy,  you can prevent workplace sexual harassment from happening to you and your co-workers.