Sexual harassment in the workplace
has become a major problem for business and industry,
and the source of expanding litigation. Many companies
have already recognized the need to address this problem
preventatively. They are establishing sexual harassment
policies and grievance procedures, many of which are
being required by both general and employment practice
liability insurers. A wide variety of sexual harassment
awareness training programs are also being offered to
address the company's culture with respect to gender
bias and identification of harassment. However, even
though these are valuable steps to ensure that the workplace
is conscious of discriminatory and harassment issues,
it is often not enough once harassment has been identified.
Unlike a general training program,
if harassment has been identified, the company has a
problem. This problem is not easily solved and may have
complex sources. Of course, if the harasser's actions
have been sufficiently egregious, the proper response
of the company is termination. When the harassment was
less egregious, remedial disciplinary action or generic
sexual harassment training can fall short of rectifying
the problem--and can merely postpone a subsequent disaster.
Retraining the sexual harasser must involve a more personalized
evaluation. There should be an assessment of both the
individual and the employment setting. Target considerations
need to be identified for corrective action. And, intervention
should include a range of potential measures that are
tailored to the specific circumstances. Trained psychological
evaluators can greatly assist this process.
The proper assessment involves
a clear understanding of the events in question. This
comes from a proper investigation and review of reports.
The personnel file of at least the harasser needs to
be scrutinized and input from the human resources personnel
and supervisors must be taken into account. Whether
or not a sexual harassment policy and/or sexual harassment
training has been incorporated is also crucial.
The identified harasser needs to
be interviewed not only with regard to the circumstances
surrounding the complaint, but also organizational and
interpersonal factors that may be relevant. Of particular
importance are attitudinal and psychological predispositions
to harassment behavior. Questionnaires and other psychological
testing instruments may be helpful to outline sexual
harassment awareness, general levels of stress, and
The target considerations
for such an evaluation need to focus on both the harasser's
characteristics as well as organizational issues. The
harasser's characteristics include situational, attitudinal,
interpersonal and psychological. It is important, for
example, to determine the level of participation in
the sexual harassment, the harasser's degree of denial
or externalization of blame, and extent of rationalization
for what has occurred. Cultural and gender biases are
also important to identify. Is the harasser aware of
the nature of sexual harassment behavior, sexual harassment
policy, sexual harassment law and employer liability?
What is the personal relationship to the complainant?
Has there been romantic distortion? Is there a history
of retaliation or potential retaliation?
From a psychological standpoint,
does this individual show a pattern of personal inadequacy
and a need for power assertion? Although power assertion
is usually considered the primary motive for harassment,
there are some individuals who also have sexually deviant
behavioral patterns. Is there a recognizable personality
disturbance? What marital issues may be playing a role?
At times, trouble in a personal relationship leads to
displacement of anger or unmet needs in the workplace.
Is there an element of substance abuse that may be playing
a role? Are there personal mental health issues that
need to be addressed?
From an organizational standpoint,
it is necessary to evaluate the work environment and
its overt or covert support for sexual harassment and
discrimination. At times there may be company or work
group dynamics which are affecting morale, productivity
and relationships that then set the stage for sexual
harassment behavior. What level of stress is present
in the workplace? Are personnel becoming frustrated
and acting out their discomfort?
It is also important to take a good
look at the position of the identified harasser. What
kind of demands are being placed in that role? Is there
sufficient role clarity? Has that individual demonstrated
a good amount of stress tolerance or is he prone to
fragmentation under stress? A frequent source of stress
and frustration in the workplace is over employment
security. Is this an area for which the harasser has
reason to be concerned? Is this likely to improve, or
does the presence of a sexual harassment complaint only
add to insecurity?
Although the proper foundation for
sexual harassment policy is that of no tolerance, the
interpersonal relationship between harasser and complainant
should be investigated. Was this only a professional
relationship, and what is likely to happen to it now?
Is it viable for both to continue working together in
the same or similar capacity? Is separation of the two
something to consider? It is also important to look
at the complainant's personnel issues. At times a sexual
harassment complaint is a reflection of other personal
or organizational dynamics. For example, it may come
in the context of performance problems, poor motivation,
misbehavior, or the complainant's own employment insecurity.
The complainant's behavior should also be scrutinized
for the presence of welcomeness and provocation of harassment.
Some studies have shown that previous abuse or harassment
can lead to a repetition compulsion of similar situations
and/or claims. Is there a record of the complainant
being hypersensitive or also having a personality disturbance?
With the proper assessment and identification
of target considerations, intervention becomes
more focused. From the standpoint of the harasser, there
could be individual counseling regarding maladaptive
situational and interpersonal factors. There could also
be recommendations for psychological treatment where
appropriate. This could include personal counseling,
marital therapy or treatment for substance abuse problems.
Where there has been identified stress factors or low
stress tolerance, recommendations for training in this
area may be helpful. Increasingly, stress management
programs are finding their way into the workplace because
of their recognized need.
The crux of retraining the sexual
harasser is, of course, addressing sexual harassment
awareness issues in a personalized way. Once an individual's
myths or biases are uncovered, they can be specifically
discussed. Individuals can be tested to see whether
they understand how their personal behavior, both generally
and in the workplace, has constituted sexual harassment.
They can be later tested to see if their understanding
is becoming modified. In addition, they can be individually
taught to put themselves in the place of a "reasonable
woman" or an employer who faces significant liability
for their behavior. Most importantly, they can be shown
through personal training and counseling the deleterious
effects to themselves and their career from sexual harassment.
Intervention also includes feedback
to the employer regarding the level of consultation
and recommendations made, without having to specifically
divulge personal and private psychological issues. Employers
can also be advised as to relevant interpersonal conflicts
and organizational dynamics which may need to be modified
or remedied. Feedback needs to go both ways: both from
the trainer to the employer in the form of progress
reports, and from the employer to the trainer regarding
workplace observations. Initial improvement in the wake
of an unsettling complaint is not uncommon, but lasting
behavioral change is harder to achieve. Long-term monitoring
is, therefore, the best method of assuring successful
If employers are going to reduce
the level of sexual harassment in their companies, create
an environment of equal work opportunity, and prevent
devastating litigation, a preventative approach coupled
with effective intervention is necessary. Training employees
about sexual harassment is an important step, but rectifying
a known problem is even more important since it is likely
to recur. Generic sexual harassment training does not
accomplish this end and does not identify or target
key factors within the harasser or the organization.
Retraining the sexual harasser with a comprehensive
approach is more likely to be successful.
(Dr. Drukteinis is an Assistant
of Psychiatry at Dartmouth Medical School and Director
of New England Psychodiagnostics; in Maine (207) 756-6037.
He specializes in the evaluation of emotional injury
and employment stress claims).
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