Sexual Harassment: It Also Damages the Team

A new study shows what effect sexual harassment has on workplace teams. In a word: Conflict

If you need another reason to quell sexual harassment in your workplace, beyond a potentially monster lawsuit, Jana L. Rever and Michele J. Gelfand have it for you.

Rever and Gelfand, both associated with university business schools, conducted a study of harassment’s effect on team behavior, with the results reported in the Academy of Management Journal, and on the website, eMaxHealth.com.

Where previously studies had probed the harmful effect of harassment on individuals, Gelfand and Rever found it also had serious effects on team performance, including both increased job stress and reduced financial results.

The study used as subjects 27 workplace teams, with 3 to 19 members each, from a Mid-Atlantic states food services company. Some teams prepared the food, others delivered it, and still others did administrative work or other tasks. The teams worked separately from each other. A total of 203 workers were surveyed, along with their 27 supervisors.

Each worker was questioned on sexual harassment that he or she might have experienced over a 2-year period. Several types of harassment turned up, and they had different effects on team behavior and results.

Overt harassment had the greatest effect on teamwork

The type of harassment with the least effect on teams, though it had a great effect on individuals, say the authors, was what the study called “sexual hostility.” It’s a general pattern of prejudice toward women and their abilities. This form of behavior also goes by the name “sexist attitudes.”

The type with the greatest effect on team performance was overt sexual offensiveness, characterized by repeated provocative jokes, remarks, and gestures. Teams that experienced this form suffered from a high degree of conflict that interfered with their work and, ultimately, with their financial results.

“[This latter form of harassment] may be particularly damaging for team processes,” wrote Raver and Gelfand, “because the acts are both clearly hostile and overtly sexual. Thus, team members cannot attribute them to misguided attempts to establish a romantic relationship or sexist attitudes.”

Train, but emphasize how harassment hurts everyone

Raver and Gelfand go along with others in prescribing training as the antidote to harassment problems, but they put a different spin on their recommendation.

“Emphasize the negative outcomes associated with sexual harassment for the entire team,” they say, “so that members realize that they may ultimately be harming everyone on a team when they perpetuate harassment.

“Team members may then think twice about engaging in such harmful behaviors, or they may be more willing to confront their fellow team members about discontinuing harassment,” the authors say.

Has harassment created conflict among work teams in your organization? If so, how have you handled it? Use the Share Your Comments button and let us know.