Sexual harassment in the workplace harms the targets of the mistreatment.  Sexual harassment also affects the nontargets who observe or perceive hostile behavior directed at coworkers.   The nontargets can not only experience the hostility, but they can also perceive their organization as lax.  These two things, personal experience and perception of organizational dysfunction, combine to reflect the interpersonal climate for women in an organization.  These features “jointly influence the well-being and withdrawal behaviors of employees”, according to the authors of the research study featured in this post.

A team of psychological science researchers examined how male and female employees’ observations and perceptions of hostility toward women influenced well-being and withdrawal behaviors.  Working in a negative interpersonal climate for women affects both male and female employees.  The researchers integrated previous research concerning observed mistreatment and perceived organizational unresponsiveness into a single model.  The purpose of their study was to use that model and examine how working in a negative interpersonal climate for women affects employees.  The researchers demonstrated a link between vicarious exposure to sexually harassing behavior and declines in psychological well-being and negative organization-related consequences.

In summary, working in a such a climate is bad for targets of workplace sexual harassment and for secondary victims, too.  Hence, “harms beyond targets”.  The findings of this research study have clear implications for organizations and lawyers.

Background

This research study considered the psychological climate of the organization.  This concerns individual perceptions of the workplace environment that relate to characteristics of the organization.  In this study, the investigators considered perceptions of how permissive the organization is of sexual harassment.  In particular, they examined the “interpersonal climate for women” and considered indicators of a negative climate for women.

Prior research has focused mainly on the personal harms experienced by the targets of workplace hostility.  Generally, past studies and theory supports the conclusion that targets of hostility have negative psychological, psychosomatic, organizational effects.  About the latter, female targets have in addition to psychological consequences shown lower job satisfaction and organizational commitment.  Most perpetrators are males and most victims are females.  Beyond this, past research has documented detrimental outcomes for targets of rude and discourteous behavior, otherwise known as incivility.  Research has shown that expressions of hostility such as interrupting colleagues, addressing others in inappropriate ways, and making jokes at another’s expense is associated with declines in job satisfaction, increase in psychological distress, and organizational withdrawal behaviors.  Organizations characterized by climates of incivility have been shown to suffer detrimental outcomes, too.  Problems include lowered morale, lowered productivity, sabotage, tardiness, absenteeism, and turnover.  Past studies have shown that men are the most likely perpetrators and women are the most likely targets of workplace incivility.

A line of research about secondary victims exists.  These persons vicariously exposed to workplace hostility have perceptions and responses, too.  The negative outcomes of vicariously experiencing the mistreatment of women in the workplace, either by witnessing or hearing about it, has been shown to parallel those of direct harassment victims.  For work teams, these problems can include more conflict, less cohesion, and declines in financial performance.  Past research studies have also suggested that perceptions of an organization’s unresponsiveness to harassment may lead to more incidents of harassment, greater bystander stress, lower job satisfaction, lower health satisfaction, lower productivity, and higher psychological distress.

What Hypotheses Did the Researchers Test?

The investigators integrated various outcomes of the previous research about observed mistreatment and perceived organizational unresponsiveness discussed in their literature review into a single model .  They used that proposed model to predict that working in a negative interpersonal climate for women would be associated with adverse outcomes in two (2) domains:  well-being (occupational, psychological, and physical) and withdrawal (from organization).

The purpose of the research was to examine two indicators of a hostile interpersonal climate for women—observed hostility toward women and perceived organizational unresponsiveness to sexual harassment—and how those two indicators jointly related to employee well-being and withdrawal.  To accomplish their purpose, the investigators tested two hypotheses:

  1. Observing incivility and sexual harassment directed toward women and perceiving the organization as unresponsive to sexual harassment would be related to lower well-being (as indicated by lowered job satisfaction and more psychological symptoms and health problems); and
  2. Lower well-being in turn would be related to increased organizational withdrawal (i.e. job  burnout, lower commitment, and turnover intention).

How Did the Researchers Test Their Hypotheses?

The investigators surveyed employees from a public university in the northwest.  The total number of participants was 1,702 and ranged in age from 20 to 75.  The participants came from a wide range of occupations and positions at the school and included technical, clerical, service, nonfaculty, and professors.

The researchers used several multi-item scale surveys to obtain data which enabled them to examine how working in a negative interpersonal climate for women affects both male and female employees.  The general subject areas surveyed included:  climate (observed incivility, observed sexual harassment, and perceived unresponsiveness); well-being (psychological, physical, and occupational); and withdrawal (job burnout, job withdrawal, and organizational affective commitment).

The investigators measured control variables:  personal experiences of mistreatment (incivility and sexual harassment); negative affectivity; and observed hostility towards men.  Analysis of personal experiences occurred to ensure that the climate effects on well-being and organizational withdrawal did not actually occur as a result of personal experiences of hostility.

What Results Did the Investigators Obtain?

The researchers analyzed the data for the proposed model and performed statistical structural equation analysis.  They reported the results separately for women and for men.

They found “the more that women observed hostility to toward other women at work, the lower their reported psychological well-being…and job satisfaction; lower psychological well-being in turn related to lower physical well-being…”  And, “as women  perceived the university as more lax about sexual harassment, they described less job satisfaction…and affective commitment.”  These results support Hypothesis 1.

The researchers reported that the modeling results for women results partially supported Hypothesis 2.  They found that “lower physical well-being and job satisfaction were both related to more job burnout…”  Also, “Lower job satisfaction was in addition associated with lower organizational commitment…and more job withdrawal…”  Finally, they reported “Lower organizational commitment and higher job burnout also predicted more job withdrawal…”

The research team tested the structural model for men also.  They reported “The results for men were identical to those for women.”  Like women, “men were negatively affected the more they observed uncivil and harassing behavior directed toward women and the more they perceived [the organization] as lax about sexual harassment.”

Discussion of “Far-reaching” Results

To recap, this research expanded the inquiry about the negative outcomes of hostility toward women in the workplace in several important ways.  First, the investigators examined outcomes for persons who merely observed or perceived mistreatment targeted at female colleagues.  Most prior research had examined the negative outcomes for direct targets.   Also, the hostility examined by the researchers included incivility toward women.  This, according to the authors, went beyond past research.  Finally, the study also examined gender as moderator of the relationship between nontargets’ exposure to the mistreatment of women in the workplace.  They summarized their work by stating “Thus, our research assessed the effects for male and female employees by observing—perceiving the mistreatment of female coworkers in their work organization.”

The negative outcomes of vicarious mistreatment—lowered psychological well-being, lower physical well-being, higher job burnout, and more thoughts about quitting—cannot, according to the researchers, be attributed to the employees’ personal experiences of mistreatment, negative affective dispositions, or observed hostility toward men.  Also, observing-perceiving the mistreatment affects men and women similarly.  According to the researchers, a key suggestion from the results of the statistical modeling is “the negative consequences of antifemale workplace climates are far-reaching, having adverse effects for all individuals in the organization—not just women and targeted employees.”

The investigators theorized from their results about the mechanisms which underlie the harms beyond targets.  They identified two possibilities for future research:  injustice perceptions [treatment of coworkers provides cues and information about organizational norms regarding fairness and justice]; affective reactions [when employees are exposed to the mistreatment of a coworker, fear of becoming a target results in well-being detriments].  While this study established an association between mistreatment and harms beyond the targets, many questions remain unanswered and the research results call for more work in the area of explaining the harm associated with vicarious exposure to misogyny.

All research has limitations.  These investigators acknowledged that the cross-sectional nature of their study limits causal inferences.  Experimental or longitudinal research must occur in the future.  They note “we cannot say definitively that observing—perceiving the mistreatment of women at work causes declines in well-being.”  However, since longitudinal models of sexual harassment suggests that declines in well-being follow from personal experiences, they suggest “it seems plausible that they might also follow from vicarious exposure to mistreatment.”   This study looked at a university environment.  The generalizability of the findings is limited necessarily to organizations with similar characteristics.  Applying the results about vicarious harms to nontargets to different employment contexts with different power structures, gender ratios, and interpersonal relationship norms calls for caution.

Implications for Lawyers and Organizations

The image above depicts “misogyny”.  Pretend these people are your coworkers and that this uncivil and sexually harassing behavior happens in your workplace.  You see what he is doing to her and you hear his words.  You see and hear her reaction.  You know that this has happened before.  You know that they know about this behavior, but nothing has been done by your organization’s leaders.  You have fears about him.  You have feelings for her.  Who is his next victim?  Could it be you? Your friend?  Under the findings of the research noted in this blog, witnessing and experiencing the behavior depicted in this image in a workplace similar could correlate with declines in psychological well-being, which in turn could relate to lower physical well-being, higher job burnout, and more thoughts about quitting.  Those harms associated with vicariously experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace implicate legal rights under federal law and laws of most states.

A commentator recently provided a thoughtful and comprehensive examination into the issue whether a legally cognizable claim of hostile environment sexual harassment under Title VII can stem solely from indirect environment conditions, termed “ambient harassment”, and concluded that under the proper analysis it can.  See Parker, K.H.B. (2008).  Ambient harassment under Title VII: Reconsidering the workplace environment.  Northwestern University Law Review, 102, 945-986 See Ambient Harassment.  Some courts think not.  See Hocevar v. Purdue Frederick Co., 223 F.3d 721, 737 (8th Cir. 2000) (opinion of Beam, J.) (“mere use of the word `bitch,’ without other evidence of sex discrimination, is not particularly probative of a general misogynist attitude”) (Hocevar case).  I conclude this part by simply saying that, in general, it seems the results of this very important psychological science research study from leading scholars provides the law an opportunity to reconsider and play “catch up”.  The law exists to protect employees, men and women, from the harms associated with misogyny in the workplace.  This is not simply a matter of some benign breach of a civility code.  This is serious business.

The researchers close their report with a section entitled “Implications and Interventions for Organizations”.  They assert “The findings of the present research have clear implications for organizations.”  The harms revealed by the research results are suggested to be organizational problems, not just individual problems.  The investigators suggest that their research results call for “broad, proactive organizational interventions to manage workplace misogyny.”

The researchers cite to a number of prior studies, and suggest there are “a number of steps that organizations can take to promote a hospitable, welcoming, and respectful workplace for all employees.”  To close, those steps which organizations should take are noted here:

  • institute formal policies declaring intolerance of interpersonal mistreatment;
  • communicate repeatedly and publicly the organization’s commitment to eliminating workplace hostility;
  • careful selection and training strategies to promote a more hospitable work environment;
  • pre-employment screening and reference checks regarding problems with interpersonal behavior and relationships;
  • training to enhance interpersonal skills and sensitivity to coworkers;
  • encourage employees to report hostile workplace interactions—whether experienced or observed—and have systems in place to handle such reports swiftly, thoroughly, and fairly;
  • have accessible and trustworthy reporting mechanisms in place;
  • protections against retaliation for employees who report hostile work behavior;’
  • counseling and support programs for employees who experience or witness hostile behavior in the workplace

Source:  Miner-Rubino K, & Cortina LM (2007). Beyond targets: consequences of vicarious exposure to misogyny at work. The Journal of applied psychology, 92 (5), 1254-69 PMID: 17845084

Image:  The man is Tony (Al Pacino) and the woman is his his sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), from the movie Scarface, See Wikipedia.  In the movie, Tony really loved his sister Gina as well as any gangster-brother type could.  He hated and mistreated other women.  The image aptly portrays the behavior of a misogynist.  If you disagree, suggestions for other images would be appreciated.

Thank you very much for visiting Psycholawlogy, www.psycholawlogy.com.  Please let me know if you have any comments, questions, or suggestions about this post, this topic, or the application of applied behavioral science and the law.  If you want to receive a copy of the article about the psychological science research featured in this post, or any case or legal commentary mentioned, please contact me through my webpage at Adlitem Solutions, www.adlitemsolutions.com or email me directly at dan@adlitemsolutions.com.

Services.  Through my consulting firm, Adlitem Solutions, I offer and provide organization development services to lawyers and judges, the legal profession, courts and justice systems, and other professional service providers and firms.  As its lead consultant with 20+ years of experience as a trial attorney and an MS degree in organizational development psychology, Adlitem Solutions can help its clients define their issues and opportunities, design custom, context-specific strategies and interventions, and implement change solutions to enhance the effectiveness of your people and organization.  Adlitem Solutions also has an associate consultant who can also assist firms with needs, including training, in the area of project management.  Do not let your workplace become a haven for misogynists.  Take steps now to eliminate potential harms for vicarious exposure.  Thank you again.

Dan DeFoe

Owner and Lead consultant at Adlitem Solutions
I'm an attorney with 20+ years of experience and have an MS degree in organizational development psychology. I provide normal personality and emotional intelligence assessments, assessment interpretation and feedback, and professional development planning and training activities for lawyers, judges, other legal services providers, and their organizations.
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4 Responses to Workplace Sexual Harassment and Negative Effects for All Employees: Harms Beyond Targets

  1. [...] That’s the gist of a new study published in The Journal of Applied Psychology and written up on the Psycholawlogy blog. [...]

  2. [...] sexual harassment doesn’t just affect its intended targets. A recent study indicated that people who witness sexual harassment feel the hostility behind it almost as much as its intended victim, and that seeing harassment [...]

  3. Tara says:

    Thank you for the empowering message! I am so glad that there is someone speaking about how is a poison in the workplace. It’s not just about how it makes women feel – it’s the fact that a workplace should be a team effort, and when there’s sexual harassment, it’s not.

  4. […] sexual harassment doesn’t just affect its intended targets. A recent study indicated that people who witness sexual harassment feel the hostility behind it almost as much as its intended victim, and that seeing harassment […]

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