Diversity & Inclusion, HR Management & Compliance

The Long-Term Impacts of Workplace Sexual Harassment

Unfortunately, sexual harassment is a reality in workplaces around the world, including advanced Western economies that one might expect to be more progressive. Workplace sexual harassment is also notoriously underreported, due in large part to the stigma that is sometimes felt by the victim, the fear of retribution, and the belief that nothing will be done if the conduct is reported.

But just because sexual harassment might be out of sight doesn’t mean it should be out of mind for employers and HR departments. Willful ignorance of what are often seen as personnel “headaches” can have long-term impacts on victims’ mental health and career well-being. If that reality doesn’t trigger the obligation to be more vigilant, organizations face additional repercussions as a result of the impact this has on victims.

Increased Turnover

Sexual harassment often leads both victims and perpetrators to leave their organization. Not surprisingly, though, it’s more likely for the victim to leave than the perpetrator, writes Christine Ro in an article for BBC Worklife. “Overall, the immediate job risks for people who report being sexually harassed include ostracism and firing. According to a 2019 Australian analysis of sexual harassment, among the cases with formal reports, 17% of victims resigned and 8% were fired (compared to 11% and 5%, respectively, of perpetrators).”

While this disparity may seem surprising, there are reasons a victim may wish to leave. “A target of harassment may have to quit to avoid the harasser, or to leave an organization that doesn’t protect their wellbeing,” Ro writes. “Even when the person who has been harassed isn’t the one to exit, it can be uncomfortable to remain in an environment where trust has eroded.”

Negative Impacts on Diversity …

Ro adds that “sexual harassment disproportionately pushes women out of certain sectors, thus continuing gender segregation.” Companies that don’t enforce their sexual harassment policies may find that the proportion of females in their ranks decreases as one moves up the ladder in terms of seniority and tenure.

… and Productivity and Morale

Obviously, a toxic workplace where sexual harassment occurs is going to negatively impact morale, and that directly impacts productivity, as well—something that can affect not only the victims but also everyone exposed to such a culture, even peripherally. “Experiencing sexual harassment is linked with poorer mental and physical health into middle age,” Ro says. “Unsurprisingly, productivity is just one of the many areas affected.”

Workplace sexual harassment has an obvious and significant impact on the victims, but organizations could be impacted because of such behavior, as well, which should serve as the impetus for them to take a proactive stance against this type of culture.