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Sexual Harassment In The Workplace

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Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Business Ethics

Philosophy Class 218

Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

What is sexual harassment?

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), “sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”

I think sexual harassment in the workplace is a social responsibility of business, unlike Milton Friedman’s thoughts. Friedman believes corporations are there only to make a profit. He states, “there is one and only one social responsibility of business - to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits…” George Brenkert another author in Business Ethics believes that corporations should assume some of the social responsibility to help alleviate “public welfare deficiencies” , areas such as inner city, drug problems, and poverty.

Brenkert’s article does not speak to social responsibilities within the workplace, only how corporations should help with society issues in the public scheme of things. One other author, Norman Bowie, takes a neoclassical view that “corporations are to make a profit while honoring the moral minimum and respecting individual rights and justice.” The corporate social responsibility doctrine is most often conceived of as having to do mainly with what the corporation owes society. So the responsibility of corporations to treat their employees well is not often raised in this context.

From my perspective, I agree with Norman Bowie. Sexual behavior in the workplace is an appearance of general male dominance since it presents a moral etiquette and a lack of respect of an individual’s rights and justice. In our social culture, I think most people believe that men and women are held in a structure of dominance and subordination. Men are thought to be the dominate gender and women the subordinate.

I believe most corporations, whether conscious or not, reward male employees for their aggressive and assertive behavior, whereas women are seen as passive, mild mannered or weak. Therefore, the majority of sexual harassment claims are from women against men.

Within the workplace, sexual harassment is about exclusionary treatment and the abuse of personal power by management to subordinates. Exploration into sexual harassment did not occur until the mid 1970’s as in such controversial books by feminist authors such as Lin Farley’s Sexual Shakedown: The Sexual Harassment of Women on The Job (1978) and Catherine MacKinnon’s Sexual Harassment of Working Women (1979).

Sexual harassment in the workplace is not a recent problem, although legal liability for it is. With widespread publicity, surveys have shown that many companies in the United States still have not taken the proper steps to protect themselves and their employees.

In 1978, anthropologist Margaret Mead, then a writer for Redbook, spoke about the problems of sexual harassment in the workplace this way, “it isn’t more laws that we need now, but new taboos.” “You don’t make passes at or sleep with the people you work with.” (Mead 1978) Mead felt corporations and employees needed better morals and ethics within the workplace instead of laws governing our movements.

Some authors such as Kenneth Cooper want us to believe that the sexual harassment pendulum swings from one extreme to the other with various steps between including such things as offensive language and flirting.

Kenneth Cooper is the author of, The Six Levels of Sexual Harassment; he proposed, “managers explain the concept to employees primarily through description of various patterns.” Cooper believes that females harassed by male managers can fit into six levels, or degrees, of sexual harassment. Cooper says the order of placement is based upon, “a third party’s ability to identify the perpetrator’s behavior as sexual harassment and the severity of the infraction.”

The six levels include:

1. Aesthetic appreciation

2. Active mental groping

3. Social touching

4. Foreplay harassment

5. Sexual abuse

6. Ultimate threat

His description of aesthetic appreciation includes nonaggressive comments related to appreciation of physical features. Although the meaning may be innocently concealed in such nonaggressive comments, it is still nonetheless sexual harassment. He cites an example of this type of appreciation of physical features as, “Gee…sigh…you’re looking better every day!” He argues that no matter how harmless the comments may seem they are still a put-down to the female gender and that a manager to make such comments could be construed as favoritism because of the person’s physical features.

Active mental groping is the second level in Cooper’s sexual harassment descriptions. He believes that direct verbal harassment is a form of active mental groping because it includes sexual jokes about the employee and staring at employee, which possibly leaves employee feeling uncomfortable, as if they are being undressed with the person’s eyes.

Third on his list is social touching. Social touching is distinguished as either friendly or sensual touching. Cooper gives us the example of, “a caressing hand laid gently on the employee,” as a sensual touch, or “the movement of manager’s hand up and down the employee’s back.”

What Cooper does not give us is an example of a friendly touch for us to compare against his sensual touch. The caressing hand laid gently on the employee could be a sign of concern or empathy toward bad news the employee may have just heard. It sounds as if he is merely warning managers to the outcome of a sensual touch as perceived by the employee. Distinction between a sensual and friendly touch could lie differently in the mind of employee and manager.

Foreplay harassment is Cooper’s fourth level in sexual harassment. Foreplay harassment includes touching inappropriately in nature and location. As an example, if a manager notices an employee’s button is undone and proceeds to button the blouse himself. This could be construed as foreplay harassment because the manager could have mentioned to the employee that she had a button undone allowing employee to fix the situation herself. To this point in levels Cooper alludes to the first four stages as a manager’s motive as to whether it really is sexual harassment. He refers to the first four levels as borderline categories, but at the same time, he seems to believe an employee could be sexually harassed without ever any physical contact.

A very controversial example to determine what is considered sexual harassment could be the Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton relationship. According to The Starr Evidence book transcripts states, “Clinton’s definition of sex…covered only his own actions …not actions performed upon him. “ This definition covers contact by the person, in this example its Monica performing oral sex on President Clinton. He feels that since he did not have sexual intercourse he did not have sex with Ms. Lewinsky.

Category five and six fall beyond the borderline criteria since sexual abuse and ultimate threat are very real and obvious in nature. Cooper believes two areas cover sexual abuse; one is forced physical sexual contact and two is psychological or emotional abuse. Sexual abuse can also be described as when an individual is responsible for unjustified harm to someone, either sexually or psychologically.

Three researchers, Sandra Tangri, Martha Burt, and Leanor Johnson believe sexual harassment falls into three models. These researchers believe all models blame sexual harassment on an abuse of management power. Two models, the organizational and socioculture are based on the dominance men or management has had over women for centuries.

The first model is natural/biological where most sexual misconduct is not considered sexist and discriminatory. Men simply have stronger sex drives than women; therefore are more aggressive in manner. The next model, organizational, is plausible because of the hierarchical structure within corporations. Again men are considered the more aggressive sex and women the weaker sex. With this model, it is very easy for management to intimidate their subordinates. The last model is socioculture and it describes how society relates to the sexual misconduct of dominance.

With the three models mentioned above, I believe our society does tend to stereotype how genders should be in the hierarchy. Men are considered dominant, women subordinate. As each generation passes into adulthood, we hope the social tide will change becoming more balanced between men and women in the workplace. With the workforce now including well over 50% of women, I believe women are becoming more aggressive and assertive taking on the stereotype of the male role.

However, with this comes the male management mentality that women who show such strengths are considered prudish and difficult. Why is it okay for males to be assertive and aggressive but not for women? Only time and proper training will change the tide of such thinking. With that said, corporations are now attempting to make strides in altering their way of thinking by implementing new policies and culture from within and at all levels of a corporation.

Challenging as these changes may seem, as each year passes I believe you will see less male to female sexual harassment. Why, because as each generation passes and women become equal in force the men become less sensitive to what was so prevalent in the 1970’s.

Both the employer and employee must think about sex at work since it affects everyone both directly and indirectly. Sex impacts an employee’s job performance and advancement. Sex impacts a corporation’s image and productivity. Together sexual harassment must be combated through proper training, by offering videos, workshops, and literature on the subject of sexual harassment in the workplace. Even with all the training available it is difficult to find a consensus on exactly how we should prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

Besides the obvious unwanted sexual advancements, there are also corporate concerns about office romances and using sex to advance a career. Office romances in many corporations are forbidden and even written into policies to make sure the message is clearly understood. Every employer should be proactive and have a written, detailed, policy explaining what sexual harassment is about. Important areas to cover in this policy include prohibited behavior, harassment by non-employees, monitoring, discipline, retaliation, grievance procedures and investigation, training.

Many times office romances turn sour and lead to jealousy, resentment, and animosity by the one rejected in the relationship, especially if they must continue to work in close proximity to one another of if it is a management and subordinate situation. Office romances can also turn into a quid pro quo sexual harassment or hostile environment case.

A hostile environment is created when a hostile, offensive, or intimidating environment may or may not threaten one’s employment.

Under the quid pro quo harassment, a person in authority demands sexual favors of a subordinate as a condition of getting or keeping job benefits. When such harassment occurs, the subordinate has the official right to take legal action. The company is held strictly liable even if it had no knowledge of the harassment because the courts follow the doctrine of an accused superior.

As an example for the quid pro quo is the Gennifer Flowers case as stated in The Starr Evidence . She met with the President, Bill Clinton, in November 1993 requesting a job and allegedly, he groped her. She did not consider this sexual harassment until the hearing. Evidently, he obtained her phone number during the 1992 presidential campaign. She had sent him friendly letters since that time. Another terminology for quid pro quo is also called “this for that.”

Our first step toward elimination of sexual harassment as a social problem is recognition that there is a problem. Drawing society’s attention to sexual harassment requires much publicity in the form of books, posters, videos, to name just a few. It is important to get the word out that sexual harassment is a valid and demeaning issue in society and socially not acceptable.

A corporation’s challenge is to make employers and employees workplace an environment which common sense distinction can be made. Proper etiquette in the workplace is important. Defining what proper etiquette is is the more difficult task for future corporations.


1 U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

2 Friedman, Milton; The Social Responsibility of Business Is To Increase Its Profits

3 Brenkert, George; Private Corporations and Public Welfare

4 Bowie, Norman; New Directions in Corporate Social Responsibility

5 Mead, Margaret; A Proposal: We Need Taboos on Sex at Work, Redbook (April, 1978) 31-33, 38

6 Kenneth Cooper is a leading analyst and speaker in the area of verbal and nonverbal communications and sexual harassment. He has both a M.S. and B.S. degrees in Industrial Engineering from the University of Missouri–Columbia. He has taught for St. Louis University, University of Missouri–St. Louis, and Webster University. Ken is a registered Professional Engineer, a Certified Administrative Manager, and a Certified Speaking Professional. He is also listed in Who’s Who in the World.

7 Kenneth Cooper

8 Kenneth Cooper

9 Kenneth Cooper

10 The Starr Evidence: The Complete Text of the Grand Jury Testimony of President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky by Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, Kenneth Starr, United States Court of Appeals, Washington Post, Kenneth W. Starr, The Washington Post Staff

11 The Starr Evidence

12 Tangri, S.S., M.R. Burt and L.B. Johnson, Sexual Harassment at Work: Three Explanatory Models, Journal of Social Issue, 38(4), 33-54 (1982)

13 The Starr Evidence