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NextGen Magazine


Study: People Interpret Written Sexual Harassment Policies as Threatening

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Nov 28, 2017


Researchers have found that even when sexual harassment policies are clearly laid out, people’s interpretations of them can blunt their effectiveness, according to the Harvard Business Review. The study’s authors noted that 98 percent of organizations in the country have a sexual harassment policy of some kind, yet it remains a stubbornly persistent feature of the U.S. workplace. They wondered why. So, the researchers gave 24 employees of a large government organization a copy of its sexual harassment policy, and then asked them to talk about the policy—first in groups, and then individually. 

What they found was that how people interpreted sexual harassment policies was very different from what the actual policies were. Essentially, according to the researchers, employees completely inverted the policy’s meaning: while the written policy was clear that it was about behaviors, workers felt that it was entirely focused on how those behaviors were perceived. Meaning, the policy was seen as threatening because it assumed that an irrational female employee (while the policy did not specify sex, the workers interpreted it to be exclusively about how men interact with women) would victimize an innocent male employee. This shift meant that, despite the actual written policy, workers framed female targets of sexual harassment as perpetrators and male perpetrators as victims. 

“To accomplish this shift in meaning, the employees drew on assumptions of women being irrational and highly emotional and on assumptions of men being rational and competent. Through this intertwining of organizational policy, organizational culture, and national culture, the employees inverted the meaning of the sexual harassment policy, making it an ineffective tool in the fight against predatory sexual behavior in the workplace,” said Debbie S. Dougherty, one of the study’s authors. 

To address these issues, the authors said that policies must have culturally appropriate, emotion-laden language, for instance by specifying that sexual harassment is predatory behavior. Management must recognize that these policies are inherently emotionally challenging, and so must not bleed the resonance from the matter under discussion. They also said that policies should include bystander interventions as a required response, which relieves the target of the sole responsibility for reporting and stopping predatory behavior. Such policy, too, will remove some of the stigma of reporting sexual harassment because it’s mandatory, and frame the problem as organization-wide, versus just individuals.