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Sexual Harassment

1.      Introduction

Sexual harassment becomes a hot issue due to its widespread in recent years.  There are growing numbers of sexual harassment complaints and rewards in such cases costing companies in lost time, damages, and legal fees.  In the US, the number of sexual and non-sexual harassment charges filed increased 117 percent from 1988 to 1993, and one researcher has projected a five-fold increase in harassment charges from 1993 to the year 2005 (Deadrick et al, 1996).  Sexual harassment is unethical in its nature.  The consequence of allowing such unethical actions in the workplace is severe.  It may hurt an employee・s self-respect and personal dignity, and ultimately affects the morale and the company・s survival in the long-term.    

The purpose of this paper is to defend that a thriving workplace depends on a sexual harassment-free work environment.  First of all, sexual harassment is defined with its types.  Then, the paper attempts to relate some ethical principles to the arguments against sexual harassment in order to defend the purpose of the report.  Finally, the costs of sexual harassment would be identified, and what the companies should do for a harassment-free workplace.  At the end of the report, a conclusion will be drawn based on these arguments.

2.      Definition and types of sexual harassment

Stone (1998) defines harassment as .any unwanted physical or verbal conduct designed to make a person feel unwelcome, offended, humiliated and/or intimidated・.  So, sexual harassment is harassment in a sexual way.  It is also a form of discrimination and is illegal (Shaw and Barry, 2000).  Stone (1998) argues that sexual harassment is not about sexual attraction; it is about the abuse of power.  The victim does not have to be of the opposite sex (Ellen and Revolt in Ottensmeyer and McCarthy, 1996).  Hence, both man and woman can be the victim or harasser of sexual harassment. 

Illegal sexual harassment falls into four categories: quid pro quo, hostile work environment, sexual favouritism and harassment by non-employees (Bravo and Cassedy, 1992).

Quid pro quo

This harassment involves .the conditioning of concrete employment benefits on sexual favours・ (Deadrick et al, 1996).  For example, the harasser (eg a supervisor) makes unwelcome sexual advances; and either states or implies that the victim must submit to if s/he wants to keep her/his job or receive a raise, promotion, or job assignment.

Hostile work environment

This involves the effect of .poisoning・ the victim・s work environment (Bravo and Cassedy, 1992). This might include display of sexually explicit materials (eg pinups and graffiti), discussion of sexual matters (eg explicit jokes, vulgar statements, abusive language and innuendoes) and overt sexual conduct (eg gestures, leers and stares)

Sexual favouritism

This is a discrimination against those employees who are not involved in the sexual demands.  For example, a supervisor rewards only those employees who submit to sexual demands.  The other employees, those who are denied raises or promotions, can claim that they are penalised by the sexual attention directed at the favoured co-workers Bravo and Cassedy, 1992).

Harassment by non-employees

Non-employees include customers, vendors, or contractors.  An employer can be held responsible for this kind of harassment if the employer has control or could have control over the actions of the harassers (Bravo and Cassedy, 1992).

3.      Arguments against sexual harassment

It is vague to define sexual harassment as different people hold different values, standards of morality and sense of humour.  For example, it is difficult to distinguish sexual harassment and flirting.  Yet, sexual harassment is about the fundamental of ethics that guide the behaviour.  Ethics is the system of moral principles; while moral is concerning principles of right and wrong behaviour (Shaw and Barry, 2000).  Therefore, it is a decision-making process from an ethical dilemma leading to a decision of right or wrong moral.  The arguments against sexual harassment are discussed with different ethical principles.

3.1    Ethical relativism

Ethical relativism holds that right and wrong are determined by what one・s society (or culture) says is right and wrong (Shaw and Barry, 2000).  Some ethical relativists might argue that sexual harassment is common in some countries or men-dominated culture.  Many men in the workplace, whether intentionally or not, end up encouraging or condoning harassment due to this reason.  They know their behaviour makes women uncomfortable but it is interesting to discover that this is also the reason they do it.  They feel this is right as they .do not know・ this is unethical. 

However, this fallacy of ethical relativism cannot be an excuse to treat ethics .does not exist・.  Hoffman and Frederick (1995) argue that a social group might have incorrect factual beliefs, make invalid inferences, mistakenly weigh evidence, or make some other error.  Unlike in the past, globalisation has made the world smaller with free flow of information.  People should be able to learn from the outside world and choose the correct ethical beliefs.

3.2    Utilitarianism

Schumann (2001) argues that sexual harassment fails the utilitarian principle. Utilitarianism maintains that the morally right action is the one that provides the greatest happiness for all those affected (Shaw and Barry, 2000).  An act is ethically permissible if and only if it maximises utility, which is the greatest total amount of pleasure or the least amount of pain (Hoffman and Frederick, 1995).  

Based on the principles of utilitarianism, it is unlikely in the cases of sexual harassment.  A victim obtains an assignment or a job from submitting a sexual harassment is not true job qualifications.  Sexual harassment would also negatively affect the performance of the victims.  These evidences show that it is the harasser who gets the maximum pleasures from the action; while the victim receives the greatest amount of pain in the process.  Hence, sexual harassment is unethical as it reduces the net social benefits according to Schumann (2001).

Sexual harassment also fails the rule utilitarianism.  The rule maintains that the proper principles of right and wrong are those that would maximise happiness if society adopted them (Shaw and Barry, 2000).  Yet, with more people understand what sexual harassment is, it is less tolerated in the workplace and widely agreed as a morally wrong action from the society.

3.3    Kant・s theory

Some harassers contend that as long as they do not physically hurt the victims, business should not really take ethics seriously.  This is why sometimes harassers are surprised to find that what they intend as innocent teasing is not received that way.  However, Kant (cited in Hoffman and Frederick, 1995) argues that all mature persons have the capacity to reason, and these rules can be applied to everyone.  Kant stresses the importance of acting on principle and from a sense of duty (Shaw and Barry, 2000), which is a moral obligation to guide the behaviour. 

Kohlberg (cited in O・Leary-Kelly and Bowes-Spearry, 2001) argues that sexual harassment training programs that overemphasise legal requirements may encourage employees to reason at lower levels of cognitive moral development when considering issues of sexual harassment.  O・Leary-Kelly and Bowes-Spearry (2001) also argue that specifically, individuals responding to ethical dilemmas within a business context (such as sexual harassment) employ lower levels of moral reasoning than when responding to non-business (eg family or personal) ethical issues

Hence, sexual harassment is unethical because it lacks of such obligations for three reasons.  Sexual harassment is obviously not universalised as the harasser・s reasons cannot be reasons to act on.  Moreover, the harasser is definitely unwilling for reversibility to be the victim of harassment (or their family members).  Finally, it fails to treat the victim with respect as the victim cannot develop their capacity to consent to be treated due to inequalities in power.

3.4    Rights

Some harassers complain that the accused of hostile work environment has deprived their rights to freedom of speech.  Yet, if this can be reversible according to Kant, the harassers should aware that in return they also violate the rights of the victims.  Feary (in Beauchamp and Bowie, 1997) concludes the rights being violated are the rights to equal treatment, rights to equal opportunities, rights to privacy, and rights to freedom of speech as well. 

First of all, equal treatment is to avoid discrimination.  However, it is generally agreed that sexual harassment always constitutes discrimination.  Women and especially women of colour are still the group most likely to be victimised by sexual harassment.  Discrimination is not only about sex, it is also about inequalities of power as the harassers are usually occupying positions of superior authority. 

Secondly, sexual harassment means that the victims do not enjoy fair equality in the workplace and suffer from stress syndrome impairing their job performance.  A hostile work environment undermines respect for women making it difficult for them to exercise authority and command respect.  Gaining assignments or jobs through sex are merely an unfair deal because of inequalities of power.

Thirdly, sexual harassment violates privacy rights.  Feary (in Beauchamp and Bowie, 1997) argues that .given that sexual matters are irrelevant in assessing an individual・s ability to perform a job, privacy rights seem to preclude any inquiries by managers about the sexual lives of their employees outside of the workplace・.  Jokes about sex in the workplace also deprive the privacy rights of the others.

Finally, there are high percentage of victims were fired for complaining or forced to leave their jobs.  These are reasons that most victims are afraid to file complaints about sexual harassment due to a violation of freedom to right of speech.  Moreover, the complaint from the harasser about the rights to freedom of speech is an ethical decision-making process according to O・Leary-Kelly and Bowes-Sperry (2001).  The decision is the selection of freedom (the behaviour) which can help or harm the others.  Jones (cited in O・Leary-Kelly and Bowes-Sperry, 2001) argues that an ethical decision only occurs when an individual resolves a moral issue through a choice that is both legal and morally acceptable to the large community.  So when the individual chooses the harmful action (sexual harassment), an unethical decision has been made.

3.5    Rawls・ Theory of Justice

Rawls・ theory of justice (cited in Wells and Kracher, in Ottensmeyer and McCarthy, 1996) establishes the .original position・ of fundamental principles of justice.  It is the just principles that people would unanimously accept when in a certain fair situation.  The rationality in the original position dictates use of the maximum strategy, of which an individual will choose principles where the worst outcome for her/him is the least bad.  Therefore, Rawls argues that in the original position individuals would consent to at least five natural duties (principles of justice): duty to uphold just institutions, give mutual aid, mutual respect of persons, not to harm the innocent and not to injure.  Consequently, sexual harassment is not just to the victims as the harassers neglect their natural duties and harm the victims psychologically and sometimes physically.  

3.6    Ethics of virtue

The true harasser acts not out of insensitivity but precisely because of the knowledge that the behaviour will make the victims uncomfortable.  Bravo and Cassedy (1992) states that this type of harasser derives pleasure from the momentary or continuing powerlessness of the other individual.  This is actually a breach of the ethics of virtue.  Or it can be described in terms of vices by Schumann (2001) as it does not treat people with respect and dignity they deserve.  The victims would feel hurt, insulted, frightened or ridiculed and may cause damaging stereotyping (The Department of Education of Tasmania, 2002).

Virtues are traits of character that both help individuals achieve their goals and are beneficial to the larger community (Hoffman and Frederick, 1995).  The choices that individuals make about how to respond to life events are informed and directed by their ethics (Johannesen, cited in Keyton and Rhodes, 1997).  Hoffman and Frederick (1995) argue that virtuous acts do not happen by chance, rather they are chosen by someone who is fully aware of what s/he is doing.  True harassers are in this type as they know their talk or action is offensive, they still continue.  In some cases, according to Bravo and Cassedy (1992), the harasser・s point is to dominate or to gain power over another.

3.7    Summarisation of the arguments

The discussions above conclude that sexual harassment is morally wrong and unethical from different perspectives.  The arguments are summarised in Figure 1:

Ethical Principles

Arguments against Sexual Harassment

Ethical relativism

Social groups might have incorrect beliefs


Net social benefits as harassers get the maximum pleasures while victims receive greatest amount of pain

Kant・s theory

Lack of moral obligations (universal, reversibility and respect)


Breach the freedom of equal treatment, equal opportunities, privacy, freedom of speech

Rawls・s theory of justice

Neglect natural duties (uphold just institutions, give mutual aid, mutual respect of persons, not to harm the innocent and not to injure)

Ethics of virtue

Breach of the ethics of virtue, or simply vices

Figure 1: Summarisation of Arguments against Sexual Harassment

4.      Costs of sexual harassment

The arguments against sexual harassment imply that there are costs to individuals and the company as well. 

For individuals

Workplace harassment can take its toll in the form of mental and emotional stress.  A study about gender and race harassment by Piotrkowski (Murray, 1998) shows that those who felt most harassed tended to perceive their workplace as hostile toward women and minorities.  It would cause ripple effects as more employees were harassed, the lower their job satisfaction and the higher their distress.  When this is not handled well, Rosenfeld et al (1999) argue that stress can hurt individual physiologically (rise in heart rate and blood pressure) and psychologically (fear, anxiety, and tension). 

For companies

The threat of litigation is real and the total cost to a corporation greatly exceeds the legal and settlement costs.  Corporations tolerate sexual harassment need to pay for the cost of lost opportunities because they would have difficulty attracting and retaining high performing employees.  Moreover, sexual harassment can have an impact on a corporation・s effectiveness through reduced employee morale, high turnover, negative publicity for the corporation, damaged careers and reputations, lost productivity, loss of potential clients, increased stress levels, and increased absenteeism (Co-operative Group (CSW) Ltd, 2002). 

5.      Sexual harassment-free workplace

Sexual harassment is damaging to the victims and the corporations as a whole.  Given the complicated connections between discrimination, violence, inequalities in power, and sexual misconduct, a thriving workplace depends on a sexual harassment-free work environment.  Corporations have a duty to insist upon sexual propriety in the workplace in order to protect any employee from becoming a victim of further discrimination.  They should recognise that sexual harassment can happen anywhere and that no matter how careful the hiring and promotion practices, no workplace has a guarantee against insensitivity or misconduct.  Therefore, a prevention policy is important, while dealing with it promptly if it does take place. 

Some corporations have attempted to develop and communicate corporate ethical codes to their employees.  Stevens (cited in Keyton and Rhodes, 1997) questions the effectiveness of such codes when some corporations view ethical codes as a legal defence; while other corporations do little to support the behaviours explicated in the code.  Although individuals are still responsible for their behaviour as the dynamic of harassment is interpersonal in nature (Keyton and Rhodes, 1997), the corporate ethical codes are still necessary as a boundary for proper workplace behaviour. 

There are two reasons for the crucial of corporate ethical codes.  First of all, employees have the right to expect ethical treatment in corporation life and have the responsibility to treat others in accordance with the ethical and moral standards of the larger society within which their corporation resides (Kreps, cited in Keyton and Rhodes, 1997).  Secondly, the ethical codes guide the employees to see ethics as those principles of right and wrong that govern their activities in the corporations (Sinclair, cited in Keyton and Rhodes, 1997).

The EEOC of the US (Interactive Employment Training Inc, 2002) suggests some guidance of roles of management to prevent workplace harassment:

(1)    Employers should take preventive measures to prohibit all forms of unlawful harassment.  Bravo and Cassedy (1992) emphasise that the preventive policy must clearly spell out the complaint procedures, including where to report problems, what steps will follow, timetables, methods of investigation, and follow-up. 

(2)    Employers should communicate their anti-harassment policy and complaint procedure to all employees periodically.

(3)    If an employee is accused of any types of harassment and an investigation is inconclusive, the employer should still train and monitor the alleged harasser.

(4)    Employers should consider the discipline, discharge, training and monitoring when taking immediate and appropriate corrective action to ensure that harassment does not recur.

Finally, a sexual harassment-free workplace needs the cooperation of both the corporations and employees.  The corporation・s roles include people management, prevention of sexual harassment, share the legal and managerial responsibilities for detecting and dealing with behaviour which constitutes sexual harassment or has the potential to develop into sexual harassment.  For employees, their roles are to ensure that their behaviour meets acceptable standards and contribute to a productive work environment.

6.      Conclusions

As a conclusion, sexual harassment is unethical for several reasons.  It is an action with incorrect belief.  Victims receive greatest amount of pain due to the violation of their rights to freedom of equal treatment, freedom of equal opportunities, freedom of privacy and freedom of speech.  Harassers decide to take the action of sexual harassment are actually breach of the ethics of virtue as they neglect their natural duties and impose unjust to the victims.  It includes unjust environments, abuse of power, do not respect the victims, harm the innocent and injure them psychologically or physically.

There are significant costs to individuals and the corporations from sexual harassment.  In order to have a striving workplace, corporations must maintain a sexual harassment-free work environment through preventive policies and corporate ethics codes.  However, the success and effectiveness of such measures would require the cooperation of both the employees and the corporations.


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