Understanding Risk Factors for Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

In the past few years, the United States has seen vast changes regarding how conversations about sexual harassment are conducted and handled. With the #MeToo movement taking the world by storm, American workplaces have had to take a critical look at their sexual harassment policies. 

Many organizations have been working hard to make sure that both their employees and companies are protected from sexual harassment allegations by targeting the problem at its source. Undeniably, the first step to preventing sexual harassment at your company is to understand how it starts and what the risk factors are. Don’t wait until it’s too late – start the conversation in your workplace today. Not convinced? Well, the numbers speak for themselves. For example, up to 85% of women report that they have been sexually harassed at work at some point in their careers. 

What Is Sexual Harassment?

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), sexual harassment in the workplace is any unwanted attention from a coworker or boss, including unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.

Sexual harassment can occur in a variety of ways. Here are a few ways that sexual harassment shows up in the workplace:

  • Derogatory remarks about a specific gender
  • Making conditions of employment depend on the exchange of sexual favors – this can happen either in an explicit or implied manner (“If only there was some way you could convince me to promote you.”)
  • Physical acts of sexual assault
  • Requests from a coworker or boss for sexual favors
  • Verbal harassment, including jokes about gender or sexual orientation
  • Unwanted physical contact or sexual advances
  • Exposing oneself 
  • Unwanted sexually explicit photos, calls, emails or texts

The Effects of Sexual Harassment on the Workplace

For individuals who face sexual harassment in their lives, the effects can be far-reaching. Many people who suffer from sexual harassment experience emotional, physical and mental health concerns long after the event. Below is a list of the types of effects to look out for. If you notice any of these in a coworker, you may want to check in with them. Or, if you witness sexual harassment take place, use your voice as a bystander to help remove the victim from the situation.

Emotional effects of sexual harassment:

  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Humiliation
  • Shame/Guilt
  • Powerlessness
  • Betrayal/Violation

Mental health effects of sexual harassment:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • PTSD
  • Panic attacks
  • Loss of motivation and difficulty concentrating
  • Substance use disorders
  • Suicidal thoughts

Physical effects of sexual harassment:

  • Increased stress at work
  • Decreased sleep or lowered sleep quality
  • Headaches and fatigue
  • Eating disturbances

In the workplace, the effects of sexual harassment are wide-reaching. The movement toward better transparency, safety and sexual harassment awareness in the workplace is a continual work in progress. There certainly is no shortage of reports on the financial repercussions of workplace sexual harassment claims. In fact, on average, a company’s cost of ignoring sexual harassment allegations is up to $6.7 million a year. Furthermore, in 2015, sexual harassment charges filed with the EEOC cost organizations $46 million, and that’s before adding monetary damages awarded through litigation. The conversation around monetary effects on organizations begs the question: What else can we do to prevent sexual harassment in our work environments?

Methods to Reduce Sexual Harassment Risk Factors 

A great first step is to familiarize yourself and your team with some of the basic risk factors for sexual harassment. The EEOC Task Force has laid out the most common risk factors and strategies to reduce harassment. Below are the EEOC risk factors for workplace sexual harassment:

  • Homogenous workforce – There is a lack of real diversity in this type of work group. Any employees who find themselves members of a minority group can feel isolated and may be vulnerable to pressures from others. Employees in the majority, on the other hand, can feel threatened by those in their group they deem as “different” from them, and may be emboldened to harass workers in a minority group. A great way to work on this is to increase diversity at all levels of the workforce and pay close attention to how employees interact with one another.
  • Workplaces where some employees do not conform to workplace norms – An example of this would be a single-sex work environment where one gender outnumbers other genders, like the mining industry. Mining is a heavily male-dominated work industry. Employees in the minority may be viewed as weak or susceptible to abuse. Managers can improve this type of situation by creating a culture of respect and civility toward all workers.
  • Culture and language differences in the workplace – New employees may arrive on the scene from different cultures or nationalities. A consequence of this could be the unintentional segregation of employees with different cultures. In this type of situation, employees from one culture may be less aware of laws and workplace norms. For example, employees who do not speak English may not fully understand their rights and could be subject to exploitation. The best way to fight this is to ensure that culturally-diverse employees fully understand laws, policies and workplace norms by presenting them in a language they understand.
  • Coarsened social discourse outside the workplace – This could occur during times when current events outside of the workplace are increasingly being discussed with extra heat or passion. For example, this could take place around an important political election. When discourse outside of work becomes coarse, it can affect how employees relate to one another at work. Be proactive about knowing when this could occur and remind your employees of conduct that is and is not appropriate at work.
  • Young workforces – There are a significant amount of teenage or young employees in this workforce scenario. Therefore, employees who are young may be unaware of workplace norms and policies. They may also lack the confidence to resist unwelcome advances or challenge any type of conduct that makes them uncomfortable. Managers can provide targeted outreach to younger employees and emphasize that they are open to hearing about any complaints or issues.
  • Workplaces with “high value” employees – These employees are usually executives and senior managers. Sometimes, management will be reluctant to handle a problem employee if they are perceived to have high value to the organization. These individuals can also see themselves as exempt from policies and norms. Apply workplace rules uniformly and make sure senior execs know that they are not exempt and that they will be disciplined or discharged for poor behavior.
  • Workplaces with significant power disparities – Low-ranking employees work alongside high-ranking employees in this case. Sometimes, supervisors can feel emboldened to exploit low-ranking employees. In turn, low-ranking employees can feel that they are not able to properly make complaints. Undocumented employees are particularly susceptible to this. Apply workplace regulations and norms uniformly, regardless of employee rank.
  • Workplaces that rely on customer service or client satisfaction – This scenario exists when compensation of an employee is directly linked to customer satisfaction. Fear of losing out on a sale may cause employees to tolerate inappropriate behavior. Be sure to use the “customer is always right” mentality appropriately if this is the case, and encourage employees to speak up if something is wrong.
  • Workplaces where work is monotonous or tasks are low-intensity – When employees frequently have spare time on their hands, harassing behavior can become a way to vent frustrations or boredom. Consider restructuring roles that may permit the employee to have ‘extra’ time on their hands in order to reduce boredom or monotony.
  • Isolated workplaces – Employees who work alone or in very small groups and have little interaction with others are considered isolated. This type of employee is usually an easy target for harassers because there are generally no witnesses. Consider restructuring work environments to reduce this risk. Ensure that workers who do work in isolated environments understand complaint procedures.
  • Workplaces that tolerate or encourage alcohol – This occurs when there is alcohol consumption during or close to work hours. Alcohol is known to reduce social inhibitions and impair judgment. Train coworkers on how to intervene if they witness any troublesome behaviors involving alcohol.
  • Decentralized workplaces – This refers to corporate offices that are removed from front line employees. Managers may feel unaccountable for their actions and may act outside of workplace norms. Additionally, managers may be unsure of how to handle harassment issues without the guidance of senior executives. Ensure that compliance training reaches all levels of the organization and develop systems for employees to connect and communicate.

Need Help Getting Started?

If you’d love to take targeted and specific actions to make your work environment a safe one for yourself, your business and your employees, a great place to start is KnowledgeCity’s online training course, “Risk Factors for Sexual Harassment.” 

Although this course focuses on California’s sexual harassment laws, it’s valuable even for businesses outside of California because these laws are widely applicable across the United States. You’ll find the course useful because it breaks down the definition of sexual harassment into even more detail and goes over the legal aspects of sexual harassment claims. In addition, you’ll learn how to recognize the signs of sexual harassment behaviors in the workplace, your obligations as an employer and how to navigate responses to sexual harassment claims by conducting internal investigations.

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