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Sexual harassment is not only bad for victims, it’s also bad for business

June 1, 2005

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

Sexual harassment is not only bad for victims, it's also bad for business, new study suggests

Although sexual harassment in the workplace has been studied extensively, virtually all the research has focused on its effects on individuals.

Now a study breaks new ground by investigating whether sexual harassment is linked to how an entire team performs when it includes one or more victims.

The results, published in the current issue of the Academy of Management Journal, reveal that there is, in fact, a strong link. Sexual harassment, the study finds, is associated with appreciably more conflict in work teams as well as with less team cohesion and less success in meeting financial goals.


"Eliminating sexual harassment not only makes good moral and legal sense - it also makes good business sense," conclude the authors, Jana L. Raver of Queen's School of Business, Queen's University, in Ontario, Canada, and Michele J. Gelfand, of the University of Maryland.

Profs. Raver and Gelfand also find that different types of harassment are associated with widely different outcomes. Thus, what is called sexist hostility (behavior that casts aspersions on women or exhibits prejudice against women) proved to have surprisingly little relationship to group performance, even though it has been shown to be seriously hurtful to individual women.

In contrast, unwanted sexual attention was associated with increased team conflict. And sexual hostility (such as repeatedly telling offensive sexual jokes or making offensive sexual remarks or gestures) was linked to even greater conflict and, in addition, to diminished group cohesion and inferior financial performance.

Sexual hostility accounted, in fact, for almost one third of the variance among groups in amount of team conflict, while sexist hostility accounted for a mere six percent of the variance.

"Sexual hostility may be particularly damaging for team processes, because the acts are both clearly hostile and overtly sexual," the authors write. "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)."

The study's findings derive from a survey administered to employees of a large food-services organization that operates restaurants in the U.S. middle-Atlantic states. About half the company's employees are organized into teams, each of which works in a single location and has little contact with workers outside the group. Some teams are involved in food preparation and cleanup, others in service delivery, others in administrative tasks, and still others in a variety of tasks.

The researchers drew on data from 27 teams, each with three to 19 members, providing a sample of 203 workers (144 female and 59 male), in addition to 27 supervisors. Fifty-eight percent of the employees were African-American and Hispanic and 22 percent were Caucasian.

Women answered a 16-question survey designed to gauge their experience of sexual harassment by either a supervisor or co-workers over the previous two years. Women and men alike were surveyed on team conflict and team cohesion; supervisors were surveyed on team citizenship behaviors - that is, the extent to which members helped one another on the job; and company records yielded information on teams' financial results. The researchers also controlled for four factors that could affect these performance-related measures - team size, percentage of males on teams, job stress, and racial diversity.

Thirty-one percent of the female team members had experienced at least one sexually harassing behavior during the previous two years. The most common type of harassment was sexist hostility, reported by 26 percent of the women, followed by sexual hostility, experienced by 17 percent. Unwanted sexual attention was reported by 10 percent, and sexual coercion by five percent.

All forms of sexual harassment together accounted for about 20 percent of the variance in the amount of conflict experienced by different teams, with sexual hostility contributing most strongly to that difference. Higher team conflict was, in turn, associated with worse financial performance. Increased job stress was related to more team conflict, but the size of teams and their racial diversity and percentage of males were not.

The findings provide new incentives, Raver and Gelfand conclude, for team managers to "make it clear that all sexually harassing behaviors are forbidden, even mild behaviors that perpetrators think are 'just good fun.'"

They further suggest that training "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 member may then think twice about engaging in such harmful behaviors or may be more willing to confront their fellow team members about discontinuing harassment."

The Academy of Management Journal, a peer-reviewed publication now in its 48th year, is published every other month by the academy, which, with over 15,000 members in 90 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The academy's other publications are the Academy of Management Review, the Academy of Management Executive, and Academy of Management Learning and Education.

Media Coverage:
Chicago Tribune. August 30, 2005. Businesses Can't Afford Harassment. (Tuesday, August 30, 2005).
National Post. Sexual Harassment and the Bottom Line. (Wednesday, October 05, 2005).
The Globe & Mail. Harassment hits bottom line: study. (Friday, June 17, 2005).

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