Jana Raver, Assistant Professor and E. Marie Shantz, Research Fellow in Organizational Behaviour at the Queen’s School of Business, is an expert in counterproductive behaviours at work. We spoke to her upon the release of her ground-breaking study, “Beyond the individual victim: Linking sexual harassment, team processes, and team performance.” Managers and leaders may be startled by her findings: that sexual harassment is widespread and is not just a problem for its direct targets; it’s also bad for team performance and the bottom line.
Why should managers pay attention to this study?
I would like them to first take notice from an absolute bottom-line standpoint. This research directly demonstrates that when sexual harassment occurs in teams, it is associated with important financial implications. So it’s not just that women are suffering or men are suffering on an individual basis; there are performance implications where team members don’t work together as effectively when sexual harassment is occurring. Managers need to take this seriously in a business sense – and not only in a moral and legal sense.
What exactly did you examine in your research?
We looked at different types of sexual harassment – sexist hostility, sexual hostility, and unwanted sexual attention – and looked at their effects on teamwork (conflict, cohesion, citizenship behaviours) and team financial performance.
Sexist hostility is harassment simply based on gender – “Men are all pigs,” or “Women aren’t smart” – and lot of this goes on. This was highest level of harassment experienced. [26% of the 160 women in the study said they had experienced this in the previous two years.]
This was separated from sexual hostility – insulting verbal and nonverbal behaviours that are explicitly sexual in nature, such as trying to get you to talk about sex. This is about sexuality versus just gender. The last type was unwanted sexual attention, which consists of behaviours aimed at eliciting sexual or romantic co-operation, such as repeatedly asking for dates despite efforts to discourage the harasser. [17% had experienced sexual hostility, and 10% unwanted sexual attention.]
We surveyed 160 women at a large food services organization that operates restaurants in the mid-Atlantic United States, in which 35 teams operate independently of one another. If anything I think our results have underestimated the prevalence of sexual harassment and its impact on teams because the organization had done a pretty good job reducing harassment. The incidence of sexually harassing behaviours was 31%. Other studies have shown higher levels of 40%-60%, or up to 70% in the military.
What were your key findings?
Different types of harassment are associated with different outcomes. We found a huge distinction between sexist hostility and sexual hostility regarding outcomes associated with teams, for example.
Sexual hostility – for example, people making very crude sexual comments, or maybe commenting to a woman that she is very promiscuous on weekends and trying to get her to talk about who she was with – had a strong relationship with the levels of team conflict, cohesion and financial performance. Teams with high levels of sexual hostility had significantly more conflict, less cohesion, and ultimately had worse financial performance than teams with little or no sexual hostility.
Sexist hostility – for example, derogatory comments about gender – didn’t have any relationship with team functioning. Cohesion, conflict, citizenship behaviours and financial performance were all unrelated to sexist hostility. To a certain extent it may be that the team gets together, and there are gender battles, and it hurts individuals. For instance, there is good evidence that if woman is called not smart because she is a woman it is individually damaging. However, it doesn’t seem to affect the team as a whole. That was a surprise.
Unwanted sexual attention – for example, when someone is trying to get a date even though it has been made clear to them that the person is not interested – was associated with increased team conflict, but didn’t affect cohesion or financial performance.
Why do you think the relationship between sexual hostility and teamwork is so strong?
We suspect that sexual hostility may be particularly damaging for team processes because the acts are both clearly hostile and overtly sexual. Earlier research has shown that women who experience harassment tend to subtly tell co-workers what’s going on, or others in the team see it occur. This creates ambient stress for the entire team – that is, many people in the team know what’s going on and are affected by it. There is empathy for others, and a certain amount of fear it could happen to you.
When people get together and talk, if someone makes sexist types of comments, people might say, “Well maybe he’s old-fashioned, has been raised with particular belief set.” There are other explanations why he might have done that. With unwanted sexual attention as well, there is the possibility that maybe even if you’ve told him you are not interested, maybe he is just clueless, doesn’t understand that no means no, and is not trying to be hostile and harm you. So there’s this process of trying to make sense of what’s going on among team members.
But with sexual hostility, it is clear harassers aren’t just being sexist, or trying to get a date. They are bringing up sexual things in a hostile manner to make you uncomfortable and perhaps to have fun with that. In that case it doesn’t seem like there’s another explanation for their behaviour except that they are trying to harm you or at least make you uncomfortable, and it’s usually for their own benefit.
What other results surprised you?
We were surprised in general by the strength of the relationships – especially that the relationship between sexual hostility and levels of conflict on the team was so high. Sexual hostility accounted for about 30% of the variance in reports of conflict.
The relationship is so strong, and that’s one reason why I really think harassment needs to be discussed more broadly in managerial training, team training, and in organizational policy. A lot of managers have been sent to interpersonal skills types of training in order to help resolve conflicts, to negotiate, or to manage teams better. But what isn’t brought up is that there could be sexual harassment or other types of abuse going on that aren’t typically addressed as important causes of that conflict.
What practical steps can team leaders take to deal with sexual harassment?
The number one thing is for managers to create a climate of respect, where not just sexual harassment, but any form of abuse or aggression, is not tolerated. So much of it is about making sure abuse and mistreatment are taken very seriously, so that when they do occur, managers can take immediate action. Zero tolerance policies for harassment, aggression, bullying or other forms of abuse at work can be helpful.
Yet unfortunately, that’s not the case for many organizations. In other research, I’ve heard stories of people who are known sexual harassers who are moved from unit to unit to unit. Women know about it, and tell each other, “You stay away from him,” but nothing is ever done about it. Organizations really need to take a strong stance on this – and realize that it is important to do so. Not only does it help individual employees’ well-being, it also helps employees to work together more effectively, and to ultimately perform better for the company.
How is sexual harassment training best delivered?
Sexual harassment training is typically offered in isolation or as part of diversity training. Organizations should also consider integrating it into other managerial and employee training programs, to prevent harassment from being seen as a rare event that is disconnected from everything else.
To my knowledge, nothing about sexual harassment is being included in most organizations’ leader effectiveness programs. Managers often get trained on conflict resolution or negotiation skills, but it would be helpful if these programs would explicitly address harassment – how to recognize it, how to deal with these difficult situations, and how to create an open, respectful climate where harassment doesn’t occur.
This research also demonstrates that sexual harassment training needs to address team dynamics. Training should emphasize the negative outcomes of harassment for the entire team so that members realize that they are harming everyone when they perpetrate harassment.
Organizations also need to address the broader implications of sexual harassment in their training and policies. For instance, what can bystanders do? If you haven’t been the target of harassment and yet you know it’s going on, you’re getting stressed out, and there’s a lot of conflict in your team because of it, do you have a right to go tell someone and complain about it? Will they listen to you? Can you file a grievance? The answers to these questions are very vague in many organizations. In the absence of any kind of guideline, I think everyone is confused about what to do. So this is something organizations and leaders need to start to deal with in their policies and training.
Do you have suggestions for managers who want a better understanding of sexual harassment in their organizations?
Include measures of harassment in the company’s annual survey about employees’ opinions and experiences. And if there isn’t such a survey in place, there should be. Employers that don’t know what their employees are experiencing at work are missing out on so much valuable information.
There are a few ways in which you can find out what employees are experiencing. First, for direct managers, it helps to establish positive, trusting relationships with your employees. If managers are seen as open and approachable, employees are more likely to come and tell them what’s going on. If employees aren’t comfortable talking to their managers, they often go to talk to a human resource representative instead. HR reps frequently have an understanding of what employees are experiencing. But for upper management to get a better picture of what is going on throughout the organization, employee surveys or employee focus groups seem to work best.
Women – and in some environments, men – are experiencing sexual harassment, and the rates are pretty high. It’s often a matter of first admitting that it might be out there, because if you don’t want to know what’s going on, it is hard to address the problem. Many managers are afraid of collecting data on this, but denial unfortunately just perpetuates the problem. In the organization where I did this research, there were no negative impacts from doing the survey; if anything, it made employees feel that management cared because they were soliciting input about their experiences.
What is the main message you’d like managers to absorb from the results of your study?
It is so important for managers to realize that taking sexual harassment in the workplace seriously is in their best interest. It is in their employees’ best interest, in their teams’ best interest, in their financial best interest, and in their customers’ best interest. It’s in everyone’s best interest to be proactive and do something. Sexual harassment is not just something that happens infrequently. It is probably happening in your organization. It’s simply a matter of whether you know about it and are doing something to prevent its negative implications for your employees, teams and organization.