April 25, 2016

Author:  Bobbi K. Dominick

Workplace harassment has likely existed since the beginning of the workplace itself.  Discriminatory animus against classes of people has existed since the beginning of humanity. Since the 1960s, Title VII and related discrimination laws have required U.S. employers to take harassment prevention more seriously. As often happens, imposing minimum legal liability prompts responsible employers to go further and implement best practices. It is only through understanding human behavior and psychology, measured against the legal protections that exist, that employers can hope to eradicate this type of behavior in the workplace, or remediate the potential harm when it occurs.

In order to prevent harassment (harassment of all kinds-gender, race, national origin, religion, age, disability) employers need to know what causes or contributes to it. A classic study of the causes and impact of sexual harassment in the workplace laid the groundwork for understanding the issue. The study noted: “sexual harassment in organizations is primarily a function of organizational and job characteristics and is more profitably conceptualized and studied at the level of group culture and organizational climate.” Employers often fail to recognize corporate climate as a legitimate and sometimes critical factor. 

In order to effectively prevent harassment employers must be cognizant of what causes harassment. It is not behavior that occurs without a context which supports it. Consequently, employers should be familiar with the research on the causes of harassment in the workplace. The preeminent study noted above identified the causes as “organizational context” and “job gender context.” 

The first factor is the one which address workplace culture as a contributing factor in harassment. This includes such factors as: (1.) How does the organization communicate its tolerance of harassment? Is it apparent that top leadership supports zero tolerance? (2.) How does the organization handle complaints about harassment? Are they handled promptly, with sensitivity, and zero tolerance? (3.) How does the organization protect against retaliation and encourage reporting?, and (4.) How does the organization punish or correct those who harass? Higher levels of harassment were reported in cultures or climates that did not appropriately address these issues. 

The incidence of harassment was even higher in male-dominated cultures with job tasks seen as traditionally male-oriented tasks. The conclusion of the study was that incidents of harassment cannot be separated causally from their organizational climate. Increasingly, studies on general workplace incivility have focused on how tolerance of incivility in the workplace can lead to defining a workplace as tolerating behavior that could lead to harassing behavior.

Recent research confirms these findings.  These studies teach us that “harassment occurred less frequently in groups whose members perceive that the organization’s upper levels will not tolerate such behavior as well as in more gender-balanced groups.” If an employee with a tendency to engage in this behavior perceives that the organization tolerates it, the organization will experience an increase in the behaviors.


Start at the top by creating a leadership culture of zero tolerance. Leaders need to be trained in zero tolerance behaviors. Leaders must strongly and publicly support zero tolerance policies. Workforce training for all employees, conducted regularly, must reinforce zero tolerance, identify specific inappropriate behaviors, and demonstrate support for reporting violations and eliminating the behavior. Other factors that contribute to a supportive environment, which reduces harassment, are a sense of team culture, supervisor support, promotion opportunities, and supportive structure. More recent studies show that an organization which seeks to eradicate bullying and incivility, and develop a more professional atmosphere, is less likely to see harassing behavior. 


Please contact a Gjording Fouser lawyer at 208.336.9777 if you would like any additional information about this topic or any other employment issues facing your company.