Sexual Harassment at Work

Psychologists generally describe sexual harassment at work as offensive, degrading, or harmful verbal or non-verbal behaviors that are of a sexual or gender-targeted nature. A variety of behaviors can be viewed as constituting sexual harassment. Examples include repeated requests for a romantic date despite rejection, as well as violent behaviors such as attempted or completed rape. Although women are more commonly victims of sexual harassment, men may be harassed as well. In the case of both female and male victims, men tend to be the most common perpetrators.

Sexual harassment is often viewed as a significant source of stress for victims. Indeed, victims may experience psychological, physical, and behavioral problems, many of which can be problematic for organizations. Sexual harassment has received a considerable amount of attention worldwide in the media, among lawmakers, and among organizational researchers. Many organizations have instituted policies and practices intended to prevent such harassment and to provide support for its victims.

To better understand workplace sexual harassment, this entry provides an overview of (a) forms of sexual harassment and how they are commonly measured by organizational researchers, (b) sexual harassment and the law, (c) causes of sexual harassment, (d) consequences of sexual harassment, and (e) how sexual harassment compares with other types of aggression in the workplace.

Forms of Sexual Harassment and Their Measurement

Louise F. Fitzgerald and her colleagues have played a pivotal role in advancing our knowledge of the manifestations of sexual harassment and how they can be measured. These researchers describe three forms of sexual harassment: gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention, and sexual coercion.

Gender Harassment

Gender harassment refers to verbal and nonverbal behaviors that are not aimed at sexual cooperation but convey insulting, hostile, and degrading attitudes toward a person’s gender. In other words, this form of sexual harassment constitutes putting someone down on the basis of their gender. Examples of such behaviors include making crude sexual remarks, displaying or distributing sexually offensive material, and making sexist comments. Compared with the two other forms of sexual harassment described here, gender harassment is likely the most widespread.

Unwanted Sexual Attention

Unwanted sexual attention denotes verbal and nonverbal behavior that is offensive, unwanted, and unreciprocated. Unwanted sexual attention is distinguishable from gender harassment in that it indicates an inappropriate and unwelcome come-on as opposed to a put-down. Behaviors that may constitute unwanted sexual attention include attempts to discuss sex, leering, and repeated requests for drinks or dinner despite rejection, as well as physical behaviors such as touching someone in a way that makes him or her feel uncomfortable or attempting to stroke or fondle another person. Attempted or completed rape can be viewed as an extreme form of unwanted sexual attention.

Sexual Coercion

Sexual coercion is the extortion of sexual cooperation in return for job-related considerations such as job security, promotions, and compensation (e.g., salary, bonuses). Behaviors exemplifying this form of sexual harassment include making subtle bribes, making subtle threats, and making a person afraid of poor job-related treatment if he or she does not agree to provide a sexual favor.

Although gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention, and sexual coercion have been proposed as conceptually distinct forms of sexual harassment, they tend to be highly correlated because they often co-occur in the same organizational contexts. For example, victims of sexual coercion virtually always report having experienced unwanted sexual attention and gender harassment in the same context.

Measuring Sexual Harassment

Fitzgerald and her colleagues developed a questionnaire, the Sexual Experiences Questionnaire (SEQ), to measure how frequently employees believe they have been the target or victim of each of the three forms of sexual harassment. In the questionnaire, individuals are presented with a series of statements (items) describing behaviors that denote each of the three forms of sexual harassment and are asked to rate the frequency with which they have been the target of such behaviors over a given time period. Though some scholars have encouraged further refinement of the SEQ, it remains the most widely known and studied measure of sexual harassment.

Sexual Harassment and the Law

A number of countries have laws in place intended to curb the occurrence of sexual harassment. For example, the United States, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Ireland, New Zealand, Sweden, and the United Kingdom all have equal opportunity laws that address sexual harassment. For example, the United States considers sexual harassment to be a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. By this legal definition, all three forms of sexual harassment may be recognized by the EEOC as unlawful sexual harassment. However, it should be noted that the SEQ does not necessarily capture behaviors that courts recognize as unlawful. One may feel sexually harassed, psychologically speaking, without having been the target of unlawful behavior.

According to the EEOC, sexual harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances, including but not limited to the following:

  • The victim as well as the harasser may be a woman or a man; the victim need not be of the opposite sex.
  • The harasser may be the victim’s supervisor, an agent of the employer, a supervisor in another area, a coworker, or a nonemployee.
  • The victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
  • Unlawful sexual harassment may occur without economic injury to or discharge of the victim.
  • The harasser’s conduct must be unwelcome.

The EEOC notes that it is helpful for the victim to inform the offender that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop. The victim should use any employer complaint mechanism or grievance system available.

In investigating allegations of sexual harassment, the EEOC considers the circumstances, such as the nature of the sexual advances, and the context in which the alleged incidents occurred. A determination is made from the facts on a case-by-case basis. However, it is often difficult to prove that sexual harassment has taken place, especially if no objective evidence is provided. Moreover, many victims feel that making a formal complaint is worse than saying nothing at all. Not surprisingly, many victims choose not to make formal accusations. Considering the challenges associated with the legal pursuit of sexual harassers, as well as the interests of potential victims and their employing organization (the organization can suffer financially from a tarnished reputation, poor employee morale, and financial damages), it is clearly desirable to prevent the occurrence of sexual harassment in the first place. Knowing the likely causes of sexual harassment provides a roadmap for such prevention.

Causes of Sexual Harassment

The small body of empirical research conducted on potential predictors of workplace sexual harassment focuses largely on aspects of the organizational or work context and on the personal characteristics of offenders.

Work Context

Many organizations have implemented policies or practices intended to curb the occurrence of sexual harassment. Some research suggests that these policies may be beneficial. For example, both female and male employees are more likely to experience sexual harassment when they perceive their organization as being more tolerant of sexual harassment. Clearly communicating and applying policies against sexual offenders gives employees the impression that sexual harassment is not tolerated. In addition, male employees are less likely to sexually harass women when they believe that such behavior will be punished by the organization.

Another contextual factor that has been studied is the extent to which the workplace is dominated by one gender. For example, some research shows that female employees are more likely to report sexual harassment in work contexts that they view as male dominated.

Offender Characteristics

Although research on offender characteristics is limited and has focused exclusively on male offenders, it suggests that men’s past sexual experiences and current beliefs and attitudes toward the sexual harassment of women are related to their self-acknowledged propensity to sexually harass women. Specifically, men are more likely to sexually harass women when they have had more sexual experience, have been the victims of childhood sexual abuse, are more easily accepting of interpersonal violence against women, and hold beliefs regarding the sexual harassment of women that tend to blame the victim.

Consequences of Sexual Harassment

Psychologists conceptualize sexual harassment as a significant source of stress for targets. Thus, much of the research investigating the consequences of sexual harassment has tested whether the experience of sexual harassment relates to psychological, physical, and behavioral manifestations of stress, many of which can be problematic for the effective functioning of organizations. The primary limitation of most of this research, however, is that sexual harassment and its consequences are measured at the same point in time, thereby precluding any cause-and-effect conclusions from being drawn.

Psychological Consequences

Studies show that the more people report having experienced sexual harassment, the more they are likely to report reduced job satisfaction (a commonly measured work attitude), reduced satisfaction with life in general, and increased psychological distress (e.g., anxiety, depression, fear, and hopelessness about the future). It is also possible that victims psychologically avoid feelings of stress by denying (to themselves and to others) that the harassment ever took place.

Physical Consequences

Research suggests that the more people report having been sexually harassed at work, the more they are likely to complain of physical ailments such as severe headaches, shortness of breath, and exhaustion with no apparent cause. Such ailments are likely a response to the stress experienced as a result of sexual harassment.

Behavioral Consequences

Employees who experience sexual harassment are more likely to neglect their job tasks, be absent from work, and feel a desire to quit their job. These types of behaviors and behavioral intentions exemplify how some targets of sexual harassment choose to avoid the context in which the stressful event occurred, namely, their job or organization. Other responses to sexual harassment can be exhibited by victims, including confronting the offender directly (relatively rare), social coping (i.e., getting support from colleagues, friends, or family members), and advocacy seeking (i.e., bringing the alleged harassment to the attention of organizational authorities). Unfortunately, few victims seek such advocacy out of fear of individual or organizational retaliation, which may explain why organizational policies intended to reduce sexual harassment are not always effective.

Sexual Harassment and Other Types of Aggression at Work

Much of the research on workplace sexual harassment has progressed independently of research on other types of aggressive behavior at work, such as general incivility or nonsexual bullying. Recently, some scholars have argued that sexual harassment is only one of many types of workplace aggression. Despite general conceptual similarities, little is known about how sexual and nonsexual types of workplace aggression differ in terms of their causes or consequences.

A recent quantitative review of studies investigating nonviolent forms of workplace aggression revealed that nonsexual aggression generally shares a stronger relationship with reduced overall job satisfaction among female victims than does sexual aggression. This difference may be explained by reports that nonsexual aggression happens more frequently than sexual aggression, and therefore victims view it as more of an organizational problem than sexual aggression; that organizations rarely have policies in place to curb non-sexual aggression, making the victims of aggression more likely to be dissatisfied at work; and that targets generally view nonsexual aggression as a more severe form of aggression by targets than sexual aggression. Clearly, more research is needed to elucidate the unique causes and consequences of sexual versus nonsexual workplace aggression.


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  7. Wasti, S. A., & Cortina, L. M. (2002). Coping in context: Sociocultural determinants of responses to sexual harassment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 394-405.

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