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Causes and Effects of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

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Sexual harassment in the workplace may be understood as unwanted sexual advances or obscene acts or language (McDonald & Charlesworth, 2016). Although sexual harassment in the workplace may be perpetuated against men, it has tended to be considered a gendered problem that is more severe for women than men (Holland et al., 2016). This is because for most perpetrators, the purpose of sexual harassment is not aimed at sexual gratification, but the assertion of power and dominance (Lim & Cortina, 2005). Sexual harassment represents one of the ways in which men in the workplace attempt to assert their dominance over women through aggressive behaviour. This essay will consider the causes, effects and how this might inform ways in which sexual harassment may be appropriately tackled.  

Sexual harassment may be defined as the repeated deliberate unsolicited behaviour towards another person of a sexual nature. This can include verbal comments, gestures or physical actions (Harris et al. 2017). Increasing discussion on sexual harassment with the publicised #MeToo movement, where the prevalence of sexual harassment and abuse is becoming more apparent (Zarkov et al., 2018). However, Zarkov et al. (2018) notes that despite the significant level of publicity given to these instances, they have also served to restrict the definition of problem behaviour to abuse by the powerful rather than something that occurs in everyday interactions. Sexual harassment may be difficult to identify in practice because it can take different forms. Whereas it may be simpler to identify what McDonald (2012) labels the ‘sledgehammer’ form which is the single prominent act of sexual harassment, it is less clear when it relates to the ‘dripping tap’ form, which consists of mundane everyday instances rather than a single instance. 

Workplace sexual harassment is worthy of close attention because it is exacerbated by the development of a workplace culture that renders harassing behaviour accepted. Bowling et al. (2006) propose a model that connects the potential causes of workplace harassment with its effects. Three potential causes of harassment are identified: the victim, the perpetrator and the environment. This suggests that environmental and individual difference factors contribute to harassment. Although the victim’s personal characteristics are likely to have an effect on the likelihood of harassment taking place, the organisation’s climate and human resources systems are also likely to have a significant impact. This is because these support systems affect the impact that harassment can have upon the victim and this can exacerbate the negative impact of harassment.  

Although this model that emphasises the importance of environmental factors was more directly concerned with the prevalence of workplace harassment in general, the identification of underlying factors is relevant to how sexual harassment can be exacerbated in some contexts but not in others (Bowling et al., 2006). Willness et al. (2007) provide a meta-analysis that draws on 41 studies to identify the impact of situational factors upon the likelihood of sexual harassment taking place. These include the lack of sanctions for offenders, the risk that victims might undertake if they complain, and this is supported by the fact that organisations that have well-designed mechanisms that allow for the practice to be reported and for perpetrators to be disciplined.  

McLaughlin et al. (2012) suggests that it is incorrect to suppose that all sexual harassment takes place with female subordinates being harassed by male superiors as power-threat theories suggest that women in authority might be more likely targets. The notion that sexual harassment in the workplace is more likely to be perpetuated by co-workers or supervisors is emphasised by Willness et al. (2007). However, McLaughlin et al. (2012) suggest that this may not be the case because women having authority over male co-workers challenge their presumptive superiority. This may be exacerbated by the tendency to view women in positions of power as undeserving of their position, and for such women to be isolated with fewer support networks. This then leads to masculine overcompensation and may lead to harassment becoming part of the collective practice of others. The results of this investigation demonstrated that women in positions of authority did experience sexual harassment on a regular basis. It can be argued that being in a position of power should provide women with the opportunity to tackle such harassment, but the fact that such women might be relatively isolated could mean that the position of authority did not lead to greater resources to tackle such harassment. In fact, it appeared to contribute to a greater unwillingness of women to respond to harassment because it would be seen as a sign of weakness and confirm the perspective that the women were unsuited for their position.  

Lim and Cortina (2005) suggest that harassment is related to broader incivility among participants. This suggests that there may be a case to consider both as part of the same spectrum, rather than study them separately. The same cause of dominance and power might prompt workplace incivility as might result in sexual harassment (Lim & Cortina, 2005). However, workplaces that tackle sexual harassment are less concerned with matters of incivility. There is perhaps less clarity in what might consider incivility in such cases, which might account for it to be given less attention in the workplace. Different workplace cultures might have an impact on what constitutes incivility, with some considering swearing to be uncivil, whereas in other cases this might lead to stronger working relationships. Nevertheless, through appropriate education, the extent to which workplace cultures can adjust to provide an inclusive environment should be considered; workplace cultures are not static, and they need not exclude groups as a means of making in-groups cohesive.  

The fact that it might be associated could be considered an important corollary to sexual harassment, but perhaps this is related more closely to the fact that it is the ease with which negative practices in the workplace can be dealt with rather than the notion that there is an underlying problem that can be assessed independently. The focus should be upon mechanisms that allow those affected by incivility to have such concerns addressed, and it is perhaps the lack of these mechanisms that cause this link rather than the notion that a lack of politeness is the thin end of sexual harassment. Nevertheless, McDonald (2012) supports this association, arguing that individuals who experience sexual harassment often experience multiple forms of harassing behaviour. Rather than focusing solely upon the notion of incivility as something associated with sexual harassment, this analysis considers that some forms of behaviour, such as sexually offensive humour or the use of sexual imagery in language can prove damaging because it identifies the workplace as a masculinised space. This can then contribute to the tendency to perpetuate discrimination in socially acceptable forms. Furthermore, the impact of this behaviour can be more significant that some studies suggest because such behaviour may provide an indication of longer-term stress for the victim.  

The effects of sexual harassment in the workplace can be substantial. These can include a number of factors related to the victim’s ability to carry out work effectively (McLaughlin et al., 2017). Inter-personnel working may be affected. More significantly, organisational commitment is likely to have a significant impact, and this is largely because victims consider the organisation to have had an impact (Salman et al., 2016). A significant impact that is often observed is organisational withdrawal, where the victim will avoid the tasks associated with work and this behaviour would be characterised by lateness, absenteeism, or neglectfulness (McLaughlin et al., 2017). It may also result in the employee quitting work or searching for new employment. Therefore, where an organisation neglects to provide formal reporting procedures, the victims might react to harassment by withdrawing from work, avoid contact with the source of their stress, and this can result in significant organisational problems. The loss of productivity is an often-cited effect of sexual harassment, and this can involve the loss of productivity in the whole workforce or group rather than simply the victim’s tendency to reduce their own productivity (Salman et al., 2016). This is because the workplace productivity is often affected by teamwork, and therefore, the negative effects of sexual harassment can have a substantial impact.  

The psychological consequences of sexual harassment for the victim might be more severe. Fitzgerald et al. (1997) provide an integrated model for sexual harassment that identifies the personal impact upon the victim’s life satisfaction can be severe. This is more closely associated with stress related responses, such as sadness, depression, or negative mood. It is less commonly claimed as a traumatic experience for victims, although there is clearly a wide range of responses that might be appropriately measured. Willness et al. (2007) suggest that there should be less attention paid to sexual harassment as a traumatic experience because this is usually associated with more serious crimes and involves elements such as emotional numbing, flashbacks or sleep disturbances. Furthermore, there are limited number of studies that consider the effect of sexual harassment upon the physical health of the victim. McDonald (2012) suggests that the impact of sexual harassment should be considered as more severe than these approaches suggest, and the argument that the effect is not significantly traumatising should not be used as an argument to then presume that it is less serious than it is.  

McDonald (2012) notes ways in which outrage can be dampened: instances may be covered-up and take place away from witnesses. It may also include the devaluing of the victim through criticisms of performance, or it can include claiming that the actions were interpreted negatively. Claims may also be made that the process has been dealt with in an official capacity, and that therefore the airing of grievances constitutes redress (Bowling et al., 2006). Finally, there may be threats that reduce the likelihood of the harassment going reported such as tactics that include withholding references, the threat of dismissal or the tactic that includes allocating unwelcome jobs to the victim (McDonald, 2012). Bribery might include the opposite of these actions. However, in such cases it is important for the perpetrator to recognise the seriousness of his or her acts, and therefore such tactics function in cases where it is recognised that harassment has taken place. A masculinised workplace culture, for example, may mean that such behaviour is not regarded as harmful in the first place, and is considered to simply constitute ‘banter’ or part of an over-familiar working relationship Bowling et al. (2006).  

This apparent defence that it is difficult for perpetrators to know whether they are committing sexual harassment is problematic. To some extent, a workplace culture that becomes masculinised and provides the environment where sexualised imagery becomes common may then lead to harassment that could be unintentional (Bowling et al. 2006). However, this argument does not mean it does not constitute harassment. Furthermore, the fact that such an argument is used to defend perpetrators against charges of sexual harassment makes it very tenuous. For this reason, some of the most successful responses to sexual harassment constitute the education of workers in appropriate conduct that allows them to avoid sexually harassing behaviour (Zarkov et al., 2018). More significantly, the notion of sexual harassment may refer to unwanted sexual advances or the making of obscene remarks; this seems to place the onus upon definition upon the victim to decide what constitutes something unwanted or not. It also ignores the extent to which sexual harassment may come from a sexualised culture that develops through workplace interactions.  

In conclusion, the causes and the impact of sexual harassment suggest a problem that might be characterised in both simple terms and more complex ones. In simple terms, any confusion about sexual harassment should involve the perpetrator imagining themselves as the recipient, and consider whether it would be considered objectionable from that perspective. Alternatively, it simply involves the potential perpetrator conducting minimal research and identifying what might be construed as problematic behaviour. However, the development of a workplace culture that supports sexual harassment together with the lack of appropriate ways to tackle the problem at a managerial level means that much sexual harassment goes unchecked. This suggests that this might be considered principally as a managerial problem and one which might be resolved by the development of appropriate reporting methods, suitable redress, and support given to victims. There is a clear evidence of how workplace sexual harassment takes place, its effects on victims, and this evidence points clearly to a set of well-researched approaches that can be used to tackle this issue.  


Bowling, N. A., & Beehr, T. A. (2006). Workplace harassment from the victim's perspective: a theoretical model and meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91(5), pp.998-1012.  

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Zarkov, D., & Davis, K. (2018). Ambiguities and dilemmas around# MeToo:# ForHow Long and# WhereTo? http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1350506817749436 [retrieved 5th February, 2018]. 


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