Communication Currents

Communication Currents

Organizational Culture Affects Employees’ Vulnerability to Sexual Harassment

April 3, 2020
Organizational Communication

Statistics suggest that about half of all workers experience sexual harassment and that about three quarters of those who do are women. Organizational culture can contribute to whether sexual harassment occurs and whether that harassment is reported. In a new article published in NCA’s Journal of Applied Communication Research, Jessica L. Ford and Sonia R. Ivancic examine how organizational culture affects victims’ resilience, fatigue, ability to cope, and vulnerability. In the study, the authors measure three concepts in organizational communication for the first time: sexual harassment fatigue, organizational (in)tolerance of sexual harassment, and perceived victim vulnerability to future harassment. The article is currently free to access from Routledge, Taylor & Francis.

Ford and Ivancic conceptualize sexual harassment fatigue as when “workers’ continuous sexual harassment results in feelings of helplessness, anger, or an emotionless state.” They argue that this fatigue is bad for both organizations and workers. For organizations, it means that sexual harassment within the organization may continue. For workers, fatigue may lead to a lack of upward mobility or cause them to not report harassment.

Organizational (in)tolerance of sexual harassment refers to the organizational culture around sexual harassment and whether employees feel that their organization supports victims of sexual harassment and is (in)tolerant of sexual harassers. For example, participants were asked to what extent they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “My organization doesn’t want employees to come forward about sexual harassment.”

Ford and Ivancic also examine perceived vulnerability to future sexual harassment. Participants were asked how much they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “I worry that this could happen to me in the future.” Although Ford and Ivancic measured perceived vulnerability for the first time, the concept is sometimes considered the opposite of resilience, which refers to an individual’s ability to “return to normal” after trauma.

Ford and Ivancic recruited participants online for the study. Most of the participants were women, and about 60 percent of the participants worked in higher education. Others worked in food service, for the government, or in healthcare. Participants had to have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace to qualify for the study, which involved a survey about workplace sexual harassment. There were 187 completed surveys.

The results showed that participants who felt that their organization tolerated sexual harassment also felt vulnerable to future abuse. In contrast, workplaces that were seen as intolerant of sexual harassment were associated with resilience. Although resilience and vulnerability are often thought of as individual traits, these results show that they can be influenced by organizational culture. However, Ford and Ivancic suggest that “it is plausible that individuals who see themselves as more resilient may choose workplaces with cultures intolerant to sexual harassment.” The results also showed that women and people earlier in their careers felt more vulnerable to sexual harassment.

Ford and Ivancic asked participants about five coping strategies: problem-focused (e.g., contacting the perpetrator directly), active emotion-focused (e.g., talk with a therapist or seek support from friends), passive emotion focused (e.g., avoid perpetrator), both problem- and emotion-focused (e.g., reporting and therapy), and both emotional strategies (e.g., avoiding perpetrator or work and seeking support from friends). Resilient individuals were more likely to use problem-focused strategies. However, the results indicated that this might not mean reporting the incident officially. Such reports were not associated with resilience. Ford and Ivancic suggest that this may be because of “the risky nature of reporting, which may revictimize the target and lower their ability to feel resilient.”

Ford and Ivancic also measured harassment fatigue. They found that participants in workplaces that were more tolerant of sexual harassment were more likely to experience sexual harassment fatigue. These results, again, point to the importance of organizational culture in combatting sexual harassment.

Conclusion and Practical Implications

Ford and Ivancic note that official policies against sexual harassment do not mean that organizational norms support victims and reporting. Many organizations have policies against sexual harassment, but still cover up cases of sexual harassment. Changing organizational norms takes time, but doing so is a necessary step in combatting sexual harassment.

Ford and Ivancic offer a few solutions for organizations looking to assess and change workplace cultures around sexual harassment. First, they suggest that institutions consider recourses for sexual harassment beyond official reporting mechanisms because official reporting can have negative consequences for victims, such as harming one’s career. The authors also note that reporting practices could be changed to offer more support for victims. Ford and Ivancic suggest that anonymous reporting may be one solution that would offer victims more agency in reporting sexual harassment.

Second, Ford and Ivancic suggest that organizational training around sexual harassment and reporting is not enough because some trainings are ineffective and actually reduce recognition and reporting of sexual harassment. Thus, they suggest research-supported trainings, such as the bystander trainings used on university campuses.

Ultimately, Ford and Ivancic propose that an “honest assessment of organizational culture” is necessary to change organizational cultures around sexual harassment. They suggest that the survey items used to measure organizational (in)tolerance of sexual harassment in this survey could be used by organizations to assess their own levels of (in)tolerance.

This essay was translated by Mary Grace Hébert from the scholarly journal article: Jessica L. Ford & Sonia R. Ivancic (2020). “Surviving organizational tolerance of sexual harassment: an exploration of resilience, vulnerability, and harassment fatigue,” Journal of Applied Communication Research, DOI: 10.1080/00909882.2020.1739317

About the author (s)

Jessica L. Ford

Baylor University

Assistant Professor of Communication

Jessica L. Ford

Sonia R. Ivancic

University of South Florida

Assistant Professor

Sonia R. Ivancic