Sexual harassment: Poisoning profit prospects

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A group of seven employees are chatting informally in the company meeting room just before the weekly project meeting is scheduled to begin. It's Friday. Having worked together as a team for nearly a year, they know each other well. Everyone's upbeat and the banter around the table is about plans for the weekend.

Professor Jana Raver (photo supplied)

One employee named Steve says in a joking tone to Elizabeth across the table: "Hey Liz, speaking of a drive in the country, you're like my sports car - sleek lines and beautiful headlights. Whoever's got the key to your ignition is one lucky guy."

Everyone at the table hears the comment, including the team's supervisor who is just settling into her chair. Some laugh nervously; others pretend they didn't hear. The moment passes and the meeting begins.

But the poisonous effects of Steve's comment have already begun to take their toll, and not just on Elizabeth, but on the group as a whole. And we now know that it's going to damage the organization's financial and productivity prospects.

According to new research led by Professor Jana Raver of Queen's School of Business in Kingston, the group's capability to perform effectively as a team for the larger organization has now been diminished as a direct result of Steve's sexual harassment of Elizabeth.

Ms Raver's study, co-authored by Professor Michele Gelfand of the University of Maryland, "Beyond The Individual Victim: Linking Sexual Harassment, Team Processes, and Team Performance" appears in the current edition of the Academy of Management Journal.

Their research drew on data from 27 teams in a U.S. foodservice company, each with three to 19 members, providing a sample of 203 workers (144 female and 59 male), in addition to 27 supervisors.

The authors conclude their research "demonstrates to organizational decision makers that eliminating sexual harassment not only makes good moral and legal sense - it also makes good business sense."

Until now, research has focused on the effects of sexual harassment on the victim - normally a female - and its impact on her physical and psychological health, work-related behaviour and productivity.

Ms Raver says these victim-related effects are indeed extremely hurtful and damaging to the target of the sexual harassment, but the damage doesn't end with the individual. When sexual harassment occurs, she says, there is an increase in the level of "ambient sexual harassment" (ASH) within the group. In the example above, all team members who heard Steve's comments are affected.

The study indicates that sexual harassment takes several principal forms, all of which increase the group's ASH: sexist hostility, sexual hostility, unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion. But it is sexual hostility - insulting verbal and nonverbal behaviours that are explicitly sexual in nature, as depicted in the above scenario - that damages positive team processes most.

Why? The authors "speculate that sexual hostility may be particularly damaging . . . because the acts are both clearly hostile and overtly sexual, thus team members cannot simply attribute them to misguided attempts to establish a romantic relationship (as in unwanted sexual attention) or sexist attitudes (as in sexist hostility)." In other words, the conflict cannot be ignored or rationalized away. It poisons the team's cohesion and impairs creativity, commitment, initiative and productivity.

Ms Raver explained in an interview that "in this study we looked at a financial performance indicator. But in different types of organizational settings, you would expect to see a variety of different team outcomes." For example, customer-service teams would provide poorer service. Job-site teams would experience more accidents and injuries. Creative teams would lose their spark.

As the nature of the workplace evolves and employee expectations for hostility-free working conditions increase, Ms Raver says organizations will have to make genuine, meaningful change to stay competitive.

"One of the key practical implications emerging from the study is that managers need to recognize that it's not a matter of checking the box when they send people to harassment training," she emphasizes. "It's really important that they create a work environment in which harassment just isn't permitted - one guided instead by respect and fair interpersonal treatment."

Who is responsible for changing the organization's culture? Ms Raver says it's "the team leader, the direct manager - those who model the appropriate behaviour for their employees."

Her findings and prescription for change make perfect sense to Ottawa lawyer David Spears, who practises employment and union-side labour law at BrazeauSeller LLP.

Mr. Spears said in an interview that Ms Raver's findings and proposals are completely consistent with the advice he gives his own clients about conducting sexual harassment prevention training. "Aside from being something advisable to do with respect to the law and Ontario Human Rights code, it makes business sense to do it."

"The cost of sexual harassment in the workplace is significant, and goes beyond the victim of the harassment." Like Ms Raver, he places responsibility squarely on the employer for eliminating sexual harassment. "The employer really has an obligation to make sure the employees feel secure at work, and are not subject to this kind of harassment or frankly, any harassment."

Mr. Spears says that exposure to sexual hostility in the workplace adds to individual and workplace stress levels and "stress in the workforce is reaching epidemic proportions."

People start "checking out:" either literally, through absenteeism, requests for transfers and disability leave; or mentally, by withdrawing from team interaction or withholding constructive contributions. "Those are very real, bottom-line concerns I think an employer can expect" in a workplace rife with sexual harassment.

Mr. Spears also says "there's a big legal cost for sexual harassment," either fighting the complaint or settling it. He also sees the possibility of future lawsuits or human rights complaints being filed by employees who are exposed to but who are not the target of workplace sexual harassment.

"It may take the form of a 'poisoned' work environment, where harassment is so prevalent that the employee can no longer tolerate the situation" and has to leave the organization, he said. "They may sue for constructive dismissal, or they may complain to the (Human Rights) commission, asking for a whole whack of remedies."

Sexual harassment awareness is key to sustaining a healthy, profitable business. As Ms Raver's study concludes, training should "emphasize the negative outcomes associated with sexual harassment for the entire team so that members realize that they may ultimately be harming everyone on a team when they perpetrate harassment. Team members may then think twice about engaging in such harmful behaviours or may be more willing to confront their fellow team members about discontinuing harassment. "

By Jeff Esau

Special to the Ottawa Business Journal

Organizations: Queen's School of Business, University of Maryland, Academy of Management Journal BrazeauSeller Ontario Human Rights

Geographic location: Kingston, U.S., Ottawa

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