Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Should Employees Speak Out?

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Sexual harassment in the workplace is a controversial topic deserving of a well-founded discussion. Sexual harassment constitutes many grey areas and encompasses a spectrum of offenses. The questions remain: should employees speak out regardless of risks involved in order to serve the justice system? Does the possibility of losing a complaint case exist, and to what degree? What does or doesn’t make it worth it to speak out, whether you are a victim or an observer? Other than risking employment security, what other risks are involved when filing a sexual harassment case in court or through a formal complaint via an employer? There are many variables involved in the complexity of what sexual harassment actually constitutes. However, independent variables can include the actual ‘seriousness’ of the offense, whom the offender is and who the victims and the observers are in such cases. Answers to whether or not employees should speak out in cases of sexual harassment and violation are never easy and can depend on a variety of independent and interdependent variables when arguing the case for whether or not articulation of the offense is truly worth the risks involved. However, all things considered, filing charges of sexual harassment should be encouraged in the workplace.

So what exactly constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace? The term sexual harassment was coined in the 1970’s and today continues to be the topic of workplaces seminars, grievances, policies, and standards that are often taken for granted (McLaughlin et al. 16). Sexual harassment in many statutes around the world is defined by unwelcome or unwanted conduct of a sexual nature that is purposefully intimidating, hostile, humiliating, and offensive (Human Rights Commission 12). Therefore, if an employee of relative sanity feels intimidated, offended, humiliated, or unsafe due to conduct of fellow employees of a sexual nature, they have every right to file a sexual harassment claim. 

Regardless of decades of research, questions about how power dynamics affect sexual harassment often remain unanswered. However, it can be contended that sexual harassment is more about power than actual sexual desire, similar to rape in general, which should be punished accordingly (Mclaughlin et al. 16). Since sexual harassment is by-and-large about power and serves as a psychological ‘equalizer’ towards women in projected or current positions of power, it becomes a serious topic that is cause for pain, emotional damage, and violation to undeserving victims. However, sexual harassment and whether or not employees should speak out remains unanswered. Since sexual harassment policies have certainly become more stringent as women have climbed the social ladder in Western society in recent decades, it is and should be grounds for termination. Thus far it has been established that sexual harassment is and should be punishable and is more about power than sexual desire. However, mitigating factors when filing sexual harassment claims must be discussed.

Individual characteristics as well as organization-level and organization types are factors in sexual harassment cases. Various factors can serve as determinants not necessarily with regards to whether or not employees should speak out, but rather, whether or not they are likely to.  For example, women of color are more likely to fall victim to sexual harassment which can often materialize as both sexual and racist harassment (McLaughlin et al. 16). However, additional studies cited by McLaughlin et al. state that, because minorities pose ‘less of a threat’ to male dominant counterparts in positions of power and are less likely to speak out, can have direct consequences for the perpetuation of not only sexual harassment towards women, but also racialization of employees in the workplace (McLaughlin et al. 8). Therefore, it can be extrapolated that there are definite potential benefits if not only more women spoke out about sexual harassment experiences, but also if minority victimes raised their voice in these cases more often as well.

In addition, we must consider the risks involved when sexual harassment cases are filed in the workplace including the risks involved for victims and even perpetrators. Caroline Wright and Louise Fitzgerald examined a case study assessing the participants and non-participants in a class action lawsuit against a financial services firm. This case exemplifies the determinants of whether or not women chose to take part in the class action lawsuit against the company or not (4). Before embarking on the explanation of research results, the researchers necessarily point out that only between 5-30% of victims actually file formal complaints and even less than 1% participates in litigation action (Wright and Fitizgerald 265).  Additionally, regardless of the increased emphasis in the workplace on protections of sexual harassment claims in the past 2 decades, Western Society has not witnessed a subsequent increase in cases reported or filed (Wright and Fitizgerald 265). The question remains: why don’t women, who are the typical victims of sexual harassment, report perpetrators when they should?

There are certain roadblocks and time constraints that serve as barriers. For instance, litigations are client-based as opposed to lawyer-initiated lawsuits, and defendants can actually (and commonly do) win cases in trial due to the fact that both plaintiff and defendant are by law required to be adequately and equally represented (Wright and Fitizgerald 265).  Therefore, coping with sexual harassment and whether or not formal complaints and class-action lawsuits are filed is largely determinant of individual resources and constraints that influence victim’s decisions, which can perpetuate sexual harassment cycles and occurrences in the workplace. The fear of peer rejection, co-worker rejection and victimization are also very real for victims of sexual harassment cases. This is not to say that only employees with the personal and financial coping mechanisms to deal with sexual harassment violations should file sexual harassment charges. In fact, there should be more done to empower victims without the adequate resources to file complaints which should be coupled with emotional encouragement from society at large. Despite roadblocks and criticisms that arise when sexual harassment charges are filed, whether informally or formally in litigation procedures, “…employment discrimination class actions have the potential to both empower plaintiffs and promote social change” (Wright and Fitzgerald 265). Women, if they truly feel violated in the work place due to sexual harassment at any level, should make every effort to speak out and enable themselves to do so. The same goes for men, who, although much more seldom, also experience sexual harassment in the workplace. However, the question remains: who should speak out, the victims or employees who are simply witnesses?

Research suggests that even the majority of employees have either directly or indirectly witnessed sexual harassment in their places of work (Human Rights Commission 6). It has already been established that victims of sexual harassment are by-and-large not reporting their cases when violated. Also, the psychological climate of the workplace, which includes individual perceptions of their place in context of their organization, has direct influence on whether or not individuals report harassment experiences, whether or not they are bystanders or victims, and whether they feel an actual ethical dilemma is occurring (Wright and Fitizgerald 265). Therefore, individuals that feel powerless in their organizations that are less focused on collective teamwork environments and environments of encouragement are less likely to speak out. In addition to this, if research suggests that even a majority of employees aren’t speaking out, consequences of staying silent perpetuate. Bystanders of sexual harassment should be considerate of the risks when speaking out on behalf of others in cases of sexual harassment. Elizabeth Broderick of the Australian Human Rights Commission informs employees of the benefits of employing the ‘bystander approach’ while outlining ways in which individuals who are not the victims of sexual harassment violations can intervene in order to prevent and reduce harm (Human Rights Commission 4).

While there are challenges to legal and organizational ‘bystander approaches’ in Australia, the US and arguably all societies and countries, which can include liability issues, victimization and risks to occupational health, security and safety, the involvement of bystanders can be a healthy and necessary alternative to employees witnessing sexual harassment violations (Human Rights Commission 6). There are different ways of speaking out in cases of sexual harassment outside of formal complaints and lawsuits by the victimized employee, including the potentially invaluable bystander intervention. Broderick encourages bystanders to utilize primary prevention, such as increased and obvious recognition of sexual harassment that might get a violating employee to cease and desist. Additionally, Broderick encourages bystanders, if the situation persists or worsens, to launch investigatory complaints and aid in creating a workplace environment that allows and encourages the reporting of sexual harassment (Human Rights Commission 4).

In conclusion, it is important for employees to speak out in cases of sexual harassment that is causing direct psychological and physical harm to themselves or co-workers. Not only victims of sexual harassment should speak out and should be encouraged and supported in doing so, employees in general at places of work should also be encouraged to speak out on victim’s behalf in a safe environment that allows for employees to feel comfortable and safe in their place of work. Speaking out against sexual harassment violations can encourage work place environments centered on support and character. Speaking out against sexual harassment in the workplace can discourage negative sexist as well as racist attitudes. Perpetrators of sexual harassment in the work place typically have deeper psychological issues outside of sexual desire. It is necessary to mitigate the harm that these psychological issues can cause fellow employees in cases of sexual harassment. It is safe to say that the push for being articulate about sexual harassment will yield greater benefits than harm.

Works Cited S

Human Rights Commission. Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts. Encourageupport. Act! Bystander Approaches to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace. By Paula McDonald and Michael G. Flood. N.p.: University of Wollongong Research Online,  2012. Print.

McLaughlin, Heather, Christopher Uggen, and Amy Blackstone. "Sexual Harassment, Workplace Authority, and the Paradox of Power." American Sociological Review, vol. 77, no. 4, 2012, pp. 625-47. Print.

Wright, Caroline Vaile, and Louise F. Fitzgerald. "Correlates of Joining a Sexual Harassment Class Action." Law and Human Behavior, vol. 77, no. 4, 2012, pp. 265-82. Print.