Sexual harassment in the workplace
has become a major problem for business and industry,
and the source of expanding litigation. Many companies
have already recognized the need to address this problem
preventatively. They have established sexual harassment
policies and grievance procedures, which may even be
required by both general and employment practice liability
insurers. A wide variety of sexual harassment awareness
training programs are being offered to address the company's
culture with respect to gender bias and identification
of potential harassment. However, even though these
are valuable steps to make the workplace conscious of
discriminatory and harassment issues, they are often
not enough once harassment has been identified.
Unlike a sexual harassment preventive
training program to avoid a problem, once harassment
is claimed, the company already has a problem. The problem
is often not easily solved and may have complex sources.
Of course, if the alleged harasser's actions have been
sufficiently egregious, the proper response of the company
could be termination. When the harassment has been less
egregious, disciplinary action or sexual harassment
preventive training can fall short of rectifying the
problem--and may merely postpone a subsequent disaster.
Counseling the individual must involve a more personalized
approach. This should include an assessment of
both the alleged harasser and the employment setting,
identification of target areas that led to the
harassment and meaningful remedial intervention.
Trained psychological consultants can be valuable
in this process.
The proper assessment involves
a clear understanding of the events in question. This
first comes from the company having conducted a thorough
investigation. A review of any investigative reports
is, therefore, important for the consultant. The personnel
file of the alleged harasser needs to be scrutinized
and input from human resources personnel and supervisors
must be taken into account. Knowing whether or not there
is a sexual harassment policy and if sexual harassment
preventive training has been provided are also crucial.
The individual needs to be interviewed
not only with regard to the circumstances surrounding
the complaint, but also organizational and interpersonal
factors that may be relevant. Of particular importance
are attitudinal and psychological predispositions to
harassment behavior. Questionnaires and other psychological
testing instruments may be helpful to identify sexual
harassment awareness, general levels of stress, and
contributing personality factors.
The target areas on which
to focus for such an evaluation include the characteristics
of the individual and the organization which may play
a role in the harassment. The individual's characteristics
can be situational, attitudinal, interpersonal and psychological.
It is important, for example, to determine the level
of participation in the sexual harassment, the degree
of denial or externalization of blame, and the extent
of rationalization for what has occurred. Cultural and
gender biases must also be exposed. Is the individual
aware of the nature of sexual harassment behavior, sexual
harassment policy, sexual harassment law and employer
liability? What is the individual's personal relationship
to the complainant? Has there been romantic distortion?
Is there a history of retaliation or potential retaliation?
From a psychological standpoint,
does this individual show a pattern of personal inadequacy
and a need for power assertion? Although power assertion
is usually considered the primary motive for sexual
harassment, there are some individuals who also have
sexually distorted behavioral patterns. Is there a recognizable
personality disturbance? What marital issues may be
playing a role? At times, trouble in a marital relationship
leads to inappropriate displacement of anger or seeking
of unmet needs in the workplace. Is there an element
of substance abuse that may be playing a role? Are there
personal mental health issues that need to be addressed?
From an organizational standpoint,
it is necessary to evaluate the work environment and
its overt or covert support for sexual harassment and
discrimination. At times there also may be company or
work group dynamics which are affecting morale, productivity
and relationships which then set the stage for sexual
harassment behavior. What level of stress is present
in the workplace? Are personnel becoming frustrated
and acting out their distress?
It is also important to take a good
look at the position in the company of the alleged harasser.
What kind of demands are being placed in that role?
Is there sufficient role clarity? Has that individual
demonstrated good stress tolerance or is there a history
of deterioration under stress? A frequent source of
stress and frustration in the workplace is employment
insecurity. Is this an area for which the individual
has reason to be concerned? Is this likely to improve,
or does the sexual harassment complaint now only add
Although the proper foundation for
sexual harassment policy is that of no tolerance, the
interpersonal relationship between the alleged harasser
and the complainant should be investigated. Was this
only a professional relationship, and what is likely
to happen to it now? Is it viable for both to continue
working together in the same or similar capacity? Is
separation of the two something to consider? It is also
important to look at the complainant's personnel issues.
At times a sexual harassment complaint comes in the
framework of personal or organizational issues unrelated
to the alleged harassment. For example, it may follow
performance problems, poor motivation, misbehavior,
or the complainant's own employment insecurity. The
complainant's behavior should also be scrutinized for
the presence of welcomness and provocation of harassment.
Some studies have shown that previous abuse or harassment
can lead to a repetition compulsion in which similar
situations or claims are actually sought. Is there a
record of the complainant being hypersensitive or also
having a personality disturbance?
With a proper assessment and
identification of target areas of concern, intervention
becomes more focused. From the standpoint of the alleged
harasser, there could be counseling regarding maladaptive
situational and interpersonal factors. There could also
be recommendations for psychological treatment where
appropriate. This could include referral for personal
counseling, marital therapy or treatment of substance
abuse problems. Where there have been identified stress
factors or low stress tolerance, recommendations for
stress management may be helpful. Increasingly, stress
management programs are finding their way into the workplace
because of a recognized need.
The crux of remedial sexual harassment
counseling is addressing sexual harassment awareness
issues in a personalized way and providing tools for
the individual to tackle future situations more appropriately.
Once an individual's myths or biases which result in
boundary crossings or boundary violations are uncovered,
they can be specifically discussed. Individuals can
be tested to see whether they understand how their personal
behavior, both generally and in the workplace, has constituted
sexual harassment. They can be later tested to see if
their understanding is becoming modified. In addition,
they can be individually taught to put themselves in
the place of a "reasonable woman" who may
be offended or an employer who faces significant liability
for such behavior. Understanding what constitutes a
boundary crossing versus a boundary violation can make
individuals anticipate a potential problem. Most importantly,
they can be shown through personal training and counseling
the deleterious effects to themselves and their career
from a sexual harassment complaint.
Intervention also includes feedback
to the employer regarding identified contributory factors
and what recommendations have been made, without having
to specifically divulge personal and private psychological
issues. Employers are also advised as to relevant interpersonal
conflicts and organizational dynamics which may need
to be modified or remedied. Feedback needs to go both
ways: from the consultant to the employer in the form
of progress reports, and from the employer to the consultant
regarding workplace observations. Initial improvement
in the wake of an unsettling complaint is not uncommon,
but lasting behavioral change is harder to achieve.
Long-term monitoring, therefore, is the best method
of assuring successful remedial counseling.
If employers are going to reduce
the level of sexual harassment in their companies, create
an environment of equal work opportunity, and prevent
devastating litigation, a preventive approach coupled
with effective intervention is necessary. Training employees
about sexual harassment is an important step, but rectifying
a known problem is even more important since it is likely
to recur. Sexual harassment preventive training does
not always accomplish this end and may not identify
target areas within the alleged harasser or the organization
which led to harassment. Remedial sexual harassment
counseling with a comprehensive assessment and personalized
approach is more likely to be successful.
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