Select Task Force Meeting of June 15, 2015 - Workplace Harassment: Examining the Scope of the Problem and Potential Solutions
Commissioner Feldblum, Commissioner Lipnic, members of the Task Force, good morning. I am Lilia Cortina, Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan. It is a privilege to speak to you today about research on harassment in organizations. Since 1994, I have specialized in the scientific study of workplace harassment and incivility, published widely in peer-reviewed scientific journals. In addition, I teach courses at Michigan on the psychology of women, on gender and diversity in organizations, and on antisocial work behavior. In recognition of unusual and outstanding contributions to the field, I have been named Fellow of the American Psychological Association and the Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology.
I have particular expertise in the area of sexual harassment, and it is also the type that has received the most scientific attention to date. Sexual harassment research offers many conclusions and lessons that can be generalized to other types of harassment; this will be the focus of my testimony. I will also touch briefly on recommendations that have emerged from research on workplace incivility, which suggests additional possibilities for harassment intervention. Note that, like my colleagues on this panel, I am a psychologist, not an attorney. There are legal regulations surrounding much of what I study, including "sexual harassment" and "retaliation," but in my remarks here today I use these terms primarily in their social-scientific sense not their legal sense.
Social science research conceptualizes sexual harassment behaviorally, recognizing three broad categories: gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention, and sexual coercion (for a comprehensive review, see the attached chapter by Cortina & Berdahl, 2008).
Again, let me emphasize that when I use the term "sexual harassment," I am referring to behavior, not a legal finding of fact. However, sexual coercion parallels, from a behavioral perspective, the legal concept of quid pro quo harassment, whereas gender harassment and unwanted sexual attention constitute the behavioral components of a sex-related hostile work environment.
Among these categories of behavior, gender harassment is by far the most common. For example, in one study I conducted of women in the military (Leskinen, Cortina & Kabat, 2011), 60% of respondents had experienced at least one type of sexually harassing conduct during the past year. And within that group of harassed women, 9 out of every 10 victims had endured gender harassment with virtually no unwanted sexual attention or sexual coercion. We found a similar pattern among women attorneys. It appears that, in male-dominated fields, harassment of women usually has little to do with sexuality but everything to do with gender. This conduct is not about misguided attempts to draw women into sexual relationships; quite the contrary, it rejects women and attempts to drive them out of jobs where they are seen to have no place.
It is important to note that, even when women acknowledge having faced gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention, or sexual coercion on the job, fewer than 20-30% label the conduct "sexual harassment" per se. Labeling rates are even lower among women who have only encountered gender harassment.
One common myth is that sexual harassment is an aberration, perpetrated by deviant individuals who suffer from some type of obvious psychological problem. Although a number of researchers have attempted to identify a pattern of easily recognizable qualities that characterize the typical harasser, such efforts have been largely unsuccessful. Some men are more likely than others to sexually harass women, but this propensity arises from attitudes and beliefs that are not easily apparent. Men who believe traditional gender stereotypes, who endorse traditional ideas about proper roles for women and men, and who hold adversarial sexual beliefs, are more likely to sexually harass women.
That said, the scientific community widely recognizes that it is organizational conditions, rather than individual characteristics, that most powerfully predict sexual harassment. Organizations characterized by (1) a skewed gender ratio, such that most employees are male, (2) job duties and tasks that are historically masculine in nature, and (3) organizational tolerance of offensive behavior typically have far greater problems with sexual harassment. Of these, organizational "tolerance" (sometimes known as organizational "climate") is the single most powerful factor in determining whether sexual harassment will occur. Studies have shown that strict management norms and a climate that does not tolerate offensive behavior can inhibit harassment, even by those with a propensity toward such conduct.
The most common problem-solving strategy appears to be avoidance of the harasser. Another frequent response is simply to ignore the harassment and do nothing. A related reaction is to pretend that the situation is not happening or has no effect. Women in these situations often hope that, if they evade the harasser or fail to show any reaction, he will lose interest and leave them alone. These attempts at avoidance, denial, and "doing nothing" are often deliberate efforts, aimed at extinguishing the harasser's behavior by refusing to reinforce it. These reactions appear reasonable when victims fear for themselves, their families, or their jobs; when they have no other effective response options available; or when they seek to bring an end to the harassment without jeopardizing their employment. These behaviors are the only responses available to some victims in some situations.
Confronting the harasser is much less common that popular belief suggests. People often think that they would protest loudly and angrily if faced with sexual harassment, but in reality, few victims actually do so. Woodzicka and LaFrance (2001) demonstrated this in an innovative experiment; in this study, 50 female job applicants were asked questions by a male interviewer that were mildly harassing and clearly improper in a job interview (e.g., "Do you have a boyfriend?", "Do people find you desirable?"). Not a single woman challenged the interviewer about the inappropriate questions or refused to answer them. This illustrates the rarity of confrontation.
By far the least common response to sexual harassment is to file a formal complaint; only about a quarter of victims do this, and only after exhausting all other response options. Rarely do victims take their complaints to a lawyer, to the EEOC, or to court. To illustrate, a recent study by Lonsway and colleagues (2013) found that gender-harassing conduct was almost never reported, and unwanted physical touching was formally reported only 8% of the time. Even sexually coercive behavior was reported by a mere one-third of the women who experienced it.
Many sexually harassed employees never report their harassment due to fear - fear of blame, disbelief, inaction, retaliation, humiliation, ostracism, or damage to their careers and reputations. Research on reporting outcomes and retaliation illustrates how these fears are often well-founded. Sexual harassment complaints are frequently followed by organizational indifference or trivialization of the complaint as well as reprisals against the victim. In one study, a colleague and I found that two-thirds of employees who spoke out against workplace harassment faced some form of subsequent retaliation, either professional or social (Cortina & Magley, 2003). Recent research on the law enforcement profession found that almost half of female officers who reported sexual harassment to supervisors or command staff later encountered retaliation (Lonsway et al., 2013).
In research conducted over 30 years ago, psychologist Joy Livingston (1982) remarked, "Given the immense psychological and economic costs to individuals who use formal action, in contrast to the potentially meager gains, it is not surprising that so few victims choose this response" (p. 15). This statement applies equally well in 2015 as it did in the early 80s.
Answers to this question depend on which protected classes one is talking about. Let me address Latina women's experiences of sexual harassment, where I've done some research.
Social science has found that asymmetrical sexual standards still prevail in many Latino communities. In brief, traditional Latino culture rewards men for early initiation into sexual life, dominance over sexual activities, encounters with numerous sex partners, and extramarital relationships. Women, however, are stigmatized and penalized for the same behavior. In fact, a Latina can bring disgrace on not only herself but also her entire family for any sort of pre- or extra-marital sexual contact, even when that contact was forced upon her in an act of violence. In addition, norms of sexual silence constrain traditional Latinas: they often feel intense shame and embarrassment when discussing sex-related topics, so these topics are avoided altogether.
Due in part to these cultural norms, when Latinas have been victims of sexual violence, they are even less likely than non-Latina White women to engage in formal help-seeking (e.g., going to the hospital in the case of rape, or reporting to management in the case of workplace abuse). For instance, according to a recent study (Cuevas & Sabina, 2010), only 1 in 15 sexually assaulted Latinas reported to police, and reporting was lower for less-acculturated immigrants. Reasons for not going to the police included fear of the offender (29% cited this reason), fear that they would not be believed (9%), intense shame (9%), and desire for privacy (9%). That study also identified various practical barriers that prevent many immigrants from seeking formal help: limited English language skills (and first responders with limited Spanish language skills), lack of information, lack of insurance, and fear of deportation. We have seen similar patterns in scientific investigations of Latina responses to sexual harassment. For instance, in my own 2004 study of a primarily Mexican American sample, only 17-26% of sexually harassed Latinas reported their harassment to a supervisor, manager, or union representative. The lower the woman's acculturation level, the less likely she was to report the harassment.
We know from many studies that sexual harassment is costly in both organizational and human terms, and this has been documented across a wide range of industries and job titles. This harassment, even when it occurs at low levels and only entails gender harassment, damages employees' psychological and professional wellbeing. Common psychological outcomes include embarrassment, shame, anxiety, depression, and sometimes Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Even more numerous are occupational outcomes: job stress, job dissatisfaction, performance decrement, lowered commitment to the organization, and increased turnover. Research also suggests that sexual harassment interferes with team process-creating conflict and reducing cohesion; this ultimately undermines productivity (Raver & Gelfand, 2005). These various harms do not depend on whether the victim of sexual harassment labels her experience as such. That is, harassed women who do and do not describe their experience as "sexual harassment" have comparable psychological and occupational outcomes.
Importantly, employees need not be directly targeted with harassment for them to feel its negative effects; we see adverse outcomes not only in women who are sexually harassed, but also in coworkers who witness that harassment. This is true regardless of whether the witness is female or male.
In short, we know from over three decades of research that sexual harassment causes significant emotional and professional harm. This body of science does support a business case for harassment prevention.
Given the multitude of harms that accompany sexual harassment, many companies have taken steps to prevent this conduct where possible and correct it where necessary. Are those efforts effective? One thing that is striking in this area is the relative paucity of good research. Opinions abound but data are scarce on how organizations can best remedy the problem of sexual harassment.
As members of this Task Force undoubtedly know, most large US organizations today (and many smaller ones) have policies in place that prohibit sexual harassment. Experts advise that these policies should (1) be well-publicized and (2) clearly delineate procedures for reporting cases of sexual harassment. Some add that policies should (3) explain disciplinary actions that harassers might face and (4) prohibit retaliation against employees who make harassment reports in good faith. Recommendations also exist on what not to include in workplace harassment policies. For example, policies can discourage victims from coming forward if they require complainants to prove the alleged conduct or threaten to reprimand anyone who files an unsubstantiated claim.
Few social scientists have evaluated the different approaches to harassment policy. One notable exception is Jim Gruber (1998), a sociologist who found that employees reported the lowest rates of sexual harassment when they worked for organizations that proactively developed, disseminated, and enforced the sexual harassment policy. That is, they trained all employees, created official complaint procedures, and designated a specialist to receive complaints. Significantly more sexual harassment was reported by personnel whose companies only used informational approaches to policy dissemination (e.g., posting the policy in the workplace or employee handbook). Individuals in organizations with no policy at all described the most sexual harassment.
Procedures for reporting sexual harassment vary widely across organizations. In some, the only procedure available is a formal one, requiring the victim to lodge a written, signed complaint against the harasser. Formal grievance procedures have distinct advantages, allowing for official sanctions to be imposed, repeat offenders to be tracked, and managers to be held accountable. At the same time, these procedures are often adversarial in nature, with the complainant's perspective on the situation competing against that of the accused, and sometimes also his supporters, his union representatives, and management. Moreover, the privacy of the victim typically cannot be protected. Formal grievance procedures are often ineffective in bringing an end to the harassment, and they sometimes exacerbate the situation or trigger retaliation against the complainant and her supporters.
Many experts recommend that there be choices available to complainants when it comes to harassment reporting. This includes a choice among multiple procedures, both informal and formal, and choices among multiple "complaint handlers" of different genders, ethnicities, and positions (e.g., immediate supervisor, others in the chain of command, HR specialist, ombudsperson, counselors in an employee assistance program, anonymous hotline). When an organization has a sizeable number of immigrants, whose native language is something other than English, there should be complaint recipients or trained interpreters available who speak the employees' mother tongue. The availability of multiple complaint channels may increase the chance that victims find at least one option palatable, leading to more harassment coming to the organization's attention. This allows the possibility of corrective action before a situation escalates.
As with reporting procedures, sexual harassment training initiatives also vary tremendously across organizations. Some mandate training for all employees, whereas others train only managers, supervisors, complaint handlers, or employees found guilty of harassment. Many organizations offer no sexual harassment training at all. The trainer is sometimes a member of the organization, such as a senior manager, HR employee, or compliance officer. Other times the trainer is hired from the outside (e.g., EEO specialist, sexual harassment expert, attorney). Different training programs use different support materials, including lectures, speeches from organizational leaders, skits with professional actors, behavioral modeling, role-plays and other experiential exercises, computer-based programs, videos, readings, case-studies, pamphlets, homework, and tests. The length of these various programs ranges from minutes to hours to days. (For more detail, see Magley, Grossman & Kath, 2004.)
The content of sexual harassment training also differs from program to program. Many experts agree that training should include education about what constitutes unacceptable harassing conduct and where and how employees can report such conduct. Others add information about the punishments that employees will face should they sexually harass others or retaliate against harassment complainants. Some programs are oriented around awareness-raising or sensitivity-training, whereas others focus more on legal issues and penalties for harassers.
The primary goal of these various approaches to training is generally sexual harassment prevention, but little empirical evidence shows that training actually deters would-be harassers from abusing others. Another goal is to encourage employees to come forward with internal complaints of harassment; however, as noted earlier, employees rarely lodge harassment complaints (either internal or external). What, then, do sexual harassment training programs accomplish? Researchers have found that some trainings promote increased knowledge (particularly for men) of which behaviors constitute sexual harassment, what violates law, and what is addressed harassment policies and programs in the organization. Other documented outcomes of anti-harassment training include satisfaction with the organization's harassment policy, satisfaction with experiences of the harassment-complaint process, a decrease in victim-blaming or harassment-trivializing attitudes, and an increase in beliefs that sexual behavior (of any kind) is inappropriate in the workplace.
Other research, however, has found sexual harassment training programs to have either no effects or adverse effects on employees. Some trained employees become more cynical about their organization's ability or commitment to prevent sexual harassment. One investigation found male trainees to report greater victim-blaming attitudes and less willingness to file a complaint of sexual harassment compared to women and non-trained men (Bingham & Scherer, 2001). Another study found no link between harassment training and personal or witnessed experiences of sexual harassment (Magley et al., 1997). One experimental study reported no long-term effects of training on attitudes associated with the likelihood to sexually harass (Perry et al., 1998). This is disheartening.
It is important to note, however, that each of the training studies conducted to date has evaluated a completely different sexual harassment training program, limiting generalizability and making it difficult to arrive at definitive conclusions. Moreover, the methodological quality of these studies varies widely, with some lacking control groups, utilizing small samples or college-student samples, or lacking any kind of pre-training assessment. Most of the studies included post-training assessments immediately after the intervention, with no long-term follow-up assessment; this makes it impossible to know whether the training has any lasting effects. Perhaps the only fair conclusion we can draw from this research is that training programs are not a panacea for the problem of sexual harassment in organizations.
Harassment grievance mechanisms have been heavily emphasized, by both social science and the law, as the primary tools organizations should use to remedy harassment. However there are limits to what reporting can accomplish, as it attempts to root out and punish individual harassers one by one. It also places the burden of managing misbehavior on individual victims who, for a variety of reasons, are typically reluctant to come forward. Moreover, most grievance procedures fail to address broader problems that fuel hostile work environments. There is a great need for research to identify innovative prevention or control mechanisms, beyond reporting. What other approaches look promising?
One possibility is to embed anti-harassment interventions into broader initiatives to reduce incivility in organizations. In the field of organizational behavior, "incivility" refers to rude and discourteous conduct that has ambiguous intent to harm, and that violates workplace norms for mutual respect (Andersson & Pearson, 1999). Incivility is usually thought of as an identity-neutral behavior, making no overt reference to gender, race, or other social category. This might at first glance appear to quite different from the kinds of harassment being addressed by this Task Force. Research suggests, however, that incivility can sometimes represent covert manifestations of gender and racial bias on the job (Cortina, 2008; Cortina et al., 2013). With the rise of taboos, policies, and laws prohibiting discrimination against specific social groups, blatant intentions and efforts to alienate women, people of color, and other low-status groups from organizational life are less tolerated today. However, one can mask discrimination (even without realizing it) behind everyday acts of incivility. In other words, incivility could be a subtle, somewhat hidden means of creating hostile work environments for members of protected classes.
In addition, everyday incivility seems to go hand in hand with more overt harassment based on social identity. For example, in studies of attorneys and court employees, my colleagues and I found large correlations between experiences of incivility and gender harassment. Moreover, virtually all gender harassment victims also reported encounters with incivility in that same organization (Cortina et al., 2002; Lim & Cortina, 2005). It appears that gender harassment takes place against a backdrop of generalized derision and disrespect. I would argue that the same likely applies to racial harassment, sexual orientation harassment, disability harassment, etc. In other words, incivility might sometimes act as a sort of "gateway drug," being a precursor to more egregious forms of workplace abuse. For these reasons, reductions in incivility could perhaps help in the reduction of harassment.
To prevent workplace incivility, experts recommend that senior management model appropriate, respectful workplace behavior and clearly state expectations of civility in mission statements and policy manuals. All employees should receive education about these expectations for respectful conduct, and employees at all levels should undergo interpersonal skills training as needed. When incivilities do arise, instigators should be swiftly, justly, and consistently sanctioned. I would add that organizational practices to set norms of civility should explicitly discuss equitable respect toward members of different groups-female and male, gay and straight, young and old, etc. Leaders should also emphasize that unacceptable conduct includes not just overt expressions of contempt, aggression, and violence; also unacceptable are subtle devaluation and disrespect of fellow employees.
An integrated strategy of embedding harassment-prevention efforts into larger civility-promotion programs would perhaps attract broader audiences than traditional anti-harassment trainings, being relevant to all employees regardless of social identity. It might also avoid some of the resistance met by interventions that exclusively target sexual harassment, racial harassment, and the like. For more on these possibilities, see my 2008 article in Academy of Management Review (attached).
All that said, let me acknowledge that this approach to harassment intervention, focusing on more general issues of civility, remains an untested possibility. Research is needed to determine whether it is effective as a harassment remedy, for whom, and under what conditions.
Another possibility is to require, as part of EEOC settlements, that companies bring in researchers to assess the nature and extent of harassment in the work environment, as well as the effectiveness of interventions implemented to correct that harassment.
The more we understand workplace harassment, in all of its many guises, the better equipped we will be remedy it.
In closing, I commend you for this important work you are doing at the EEOC, and I welcome any questions you may have.
Andersson, L. M., & Pearson, C. M. (1999). Tit for tat? The spiraling effect of incivility in the workplace. Academy of management review, 24(3), 452-471.
Bingham, S., & Scherer, L. (2001). The unexpected effects of a sexual harassment educational program. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 37(2), 125-153.
Cortina, L. M., (2004). Hispanic perspectives on sexual harassment and social support.
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 30, 570-584.
*Cortina, L. M. (2008). Unseen injustice: Incivility as modern discrimination in organizations. Academy of Management Review, 33(1), 55-75.
*Cortina, L. M. & Berdahl, J. L. (2008). Sexual harassment in organizations: A decade of research
in review. In J. Barling & C. L. Cooper (Eds.), Handbook of organizational behavior:
Micro approaches (Vol. 1, pp. 469-497). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Cortina, L. M., Kabat-Farr, D., Leskinen, E. A., Huerta, M., & Magley, V. J. (2013). Selective incivility as modern discrimination in organizations evidence and impact. Journal of Management, 39(6), 1579-1605.
Cortina, L. M., Lonsway, K. A., Magley, V. J., Freeman, L. V., Collinsworth, L. L., Hunter, M., & Fitzgerald, L. F. (2002). What's gender got to do with it? Incivility in the federal courts. Law & Social Inquiry, 27(2), 235-270.
Cortina, L. M., & Magley, V. (2003). Raising voice, risking retaliation: Events following
interpersonal mistreatment in the workplace. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 8, 247-265.
Cuevas, C.A. & Sabina, C. (2010). Final Report: Sexual Assault among Latinas Study (SALAS). Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.
Dipboye, R.L. & Halverson, S.K. (2004). Subtle (and not so subtle) discrimination in organizations. In R.W. Griffin & A. O'Leary-Kelly (Eds.), The Dark Side of Organizational Behavior. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Gruber, J. E. (1998). The impact of male work environments and organizational policies on women's experiences of sexual harassment. Gender and Society, 12(3), 301-320.
Leskinen, E. A., Cortina, L. M., & Kabat, D. B. (2011). Gender harassment: Broadening our
understanding of sex-based harassment at work. Law and Human Behavior, 35, 25-39.
Lim, S., & Cortina, L. M. (2005). Interpersonal mistreatment in the workplace: the interface and impact of general incivility and sexual harassment. Journal of applied psychology, 90(3), 483.
Livingston, J.A. (1982). Responses to sexual harassment on the job: Legal, organizational, and individual action. Journal of Social Issues, 38, 5-22.
Lonsway, K. A., Paynich, R., & Hall, J. N. (2013). Sexual harassment in law enforcement:
Incidence, impact and perception. Police Quarterly, advance online doi:
Magley, V., Grossman, J., & Kath, L. (2004, August). First Steps First: Understanding What Are Employers Doing About Sexual Harassment? Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management, New Orleans, LA.
Magley, V., Zickar, M., Salisbury, J., Drasgow, F., & Fitzgerald, L. (1997, April). Evaluating the Effectiveness of Sexual Harassment Training. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, St. Louis, MO.
Perry, E., Kulik, C., & Schmidtke, J. (1998). Individual differences in the effectiveness of sexual harassment awareness training. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 28(8), 698-723.
Rabelo, V. C., & Cortina, L. M. (2014). Two sides of the same coin: Gender harassment and heterosexist harassment in LGBQ work lives. Law and human behavior, 38(4), 378.
Raver, J. L., & Gelfand, M, J. (2005). Beyond the individual victim: Linking sexual harassment, team processes, and team performance. Academy of Management Journal, 48, 387-400.
Woodzicka, J. A., & LaFrance, M. (2001). Real versus imagined gender harassment. Journal of Social Issues, 57(1), 15-30.
 Note: this prevalence rate has emerged in many studies: at least one out of every two women encounters some form of sexual harassment at some point during her career, and prevalence rates are even higher in military employment.
*Please see attached article.