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I am a M.A. in industrial/organizational psychology. Most of my experience has been in human resources and change management. My passion lies in employee assessment, organizational development and employee opinions. Website: www.IanMondrow.com LinkedIn Profile: http://linkd.in/drBYoC

Monday, November 22, 2010

Comparing Victim Attributions and Outcomes for Workplace Aggression & Sexual Harassment (Part 1)

Summary by: Ian B. Mondrow, M.A.

Sexual harassment has had a large presence in male-dominated organizations. It is believed that it occurs in these organizations because women are holding positions that were traditionally filled by men. Surprisingly, if a woman had masculine traits, then she is more susceptible to sexual harassment. Hershcovis and Barling (2010) suggest that sexual harassment degrades an individuals gender and thus lowers his/her status/credibility. When this occurs, female victims view the incident as an attack on their gender instead of on themselves. Sexual harassment on men is far less threatening and may even reinforce their male gender role.

Unlike sexual harassment, workplace aggression does not focus on one's gender or classification. It is equally threatening to both men and women as it crushes one's status or need to feel a part of a group. Examples of workplace aggression include social exclusion, gossiping, yelling, and rude behaviors, which all suggest that the individual is of lower status. These behaviors often focus on individual characteristics instead of one's member to a social group (i.e. gender).

Hershcovis and Barling (2010) set out to research the attributable differences between sexual harassment and workplace aggression. An online survey was administered to 117 participants. Participants were provided a story that differed based on the following dimensions: gender dominant workplace vs. gender neutral workplace (equal distribution among men & women) and workplace aggression vs. sexual harassment.  Participants were asked to rate the scenario on how descriptive it was of sexual harassment and workplace aggression on a 1-5 scale. They were also asked to allocate the blame based on a hundred points between themselves and the perpetrator. In addition, survey respondents answered questions evaluating internal attribution, personal attribution, gender attribution, external attribution, aggression ambiguity, and severity. Gender was also collected as a controlled variable.

A multivariate analysis revealed a significance between workplace aggression and sexual harassment, F(6,98) = 14.80, p<.001. It was also found that participants in the gender-dominant scenario were more likely to make an internal attribution in the workplace aggression scenario (M = 2.72) than the sexual harassment scenario ( M = 1.67). Participants that were part of the workplace aggression scenario were more likely to take the encounter personally than those in the sexual harassment scenario. Those that partook in the sexual harassment scenario were more likely to blame their bully's attitudes, F (1,108) = 19.01, p < .01, on their gender and account them for the blame, F (1,108) = 8.92, p < .01.  Participants that were in the workplace aggression scenario were more likely to blame themselves instead of the bully than those in the sexual harassment scenario. Gender distribution within the organization had no effect on sexual harassment but participants in the workplace aggression sample were more likely to make a gender attribution than in the gender-neutral environment.

Based on the findings in this study, HR practitioners need to be conscious of the fact that victims of workplace aggression are likely to place the blame on themselves. Therefore, when counseling an individual, it is important to emphasize that it is not their fault and that bullying does exist in the organization. In addition, the findings show that bullying can be equally offensive as sexual harassment and should not be taken lightly. HR professionals should examine complaints thoroughly to ensure that bullying does not escalate. 

In regards to sexual harassment, victims are likely to blame the harasser. Which they should! It is vital to understand that no employee is responsible for being a victim of sexual harassment. Regardless of one's clothing, gender, or comments, sexual advances are not acceptable in the workplace and every complaint should be investigated immediately. 

Source: Herschcovis, M.S., Barling, J. (2010). Comparing victim attributions and outcomes for workplace aggression and sexual harassment. American Psychological Association, 95 (5), 874-888.

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