Business and management conceptualizations of sexual harassment have been informed by both legal and psychological definitions. From the psychological perspective, sexual harassment behaviors include harassment based on one’s gender, enacting unwanted sexual attention, and sexual coercion. The most recent psychological theories of sexual harassment acknowledge that it is a gendered experience motivated by the societal stratification of gender and not by sexual gratification.
Harassing behaviors negatively impact individual well-being. Well-documented workplace effects of sexual harassment include reduced job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and productivity, and increased job stress, turnover, withdrawal, and conflict. Sexual harassment negatively affects target’s psychological and physical well-being, including increases in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety symptoms, emotional exhaustion, headaches, sleep problems, gastric distress, and upper respiratory problems. All of these individual-level effects can result in financial decrements for the target and the organization.
Both individual and organizational factors predict sexual harassment. Women are more likely to experience sexual harassment, as well as minoritized persons, with women who embody more than one minority identity being the most likely to experience sexual harassment. This finding supports the interpretation of sexual harassment as motivated by reinforcing societal power hierarchies. Other individual factors such as sexual orientation, age, education level, and marital status are also related to experiencing sexual harassment. At the organizational level, organizational climate, job-gender context, and relative power between the harasser and the target predict sexual harassment. Organizational climates that are more tolerant of sexual harassment produce more sexual harassment. In addition, as masculinity of a work context increases, so does sexual harassment for women. Lastly, those with lower organizational power are more likely to experience sexual harassment, particularly by people with higher levels of power; however, contrapower harassment (harassment of individuals with higher organizational power by those with lower organizational power) can also occur.
Reporting harassment to organizational authorities has been theorized to lead to positive outcomes, but reporting rates are low. This may reflect findings that procedures for reporting are often unclear and that reporting often leads to worse outcomes for targets of harassment than their non-reporting peers.
The two most common approaches to measuring sexual harassment are direct query (explicitly ask about sexual harassment) or behavior experiences (ask respondents about how many sexually harassing behaviors they have experienced). A few considerations for the methodology used in these studies include inconsistency in conceptual or operational definitions of sexual harassment, the framing of a study, the retrospective nature of research asking about past experiences, and the sampling methodology used. A number of gaps remain in the documentation and understanding of sexual harassment phenomena, which intersect with some research practices and challenges. These include (a) the need to take into account factors other than incidence rates, such as perceived severity of experiences; (b) further examination of how multiple minority statuses and intersectional oppression affect harassment; (c) the importance of conducting research on harassment perpetrators; and (d) the examination of culturally informed topics related to sexual harassment, particularly outside Western countries.