Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 295
Business Practice Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Getting in the Way

Researcher explores client sexual harassment.

Walk with me into your local branch banking office. Behind the counter, a smiling, female teller greets you, and as you announce your business, you can�t help but notice the opening in her blouse that allows you to see the cleavage of her breasts. If you are a man below the age of 80, thoughts beyond your banking transaction quickly come to mind, and just as quickly, mental blocks jump up to control your words and actions. You will avert your gaze, you will be polite, and you probably won�t count your change. You�re a gentleman, and you don�t want to make the lady uncomfortable.

Now lift the woman out from behind the teller counter and put her in your bedroom. She�s a realtor, working on her own. She�s just starting out, and she�s selling your house. There you are, just the two of you. To be a gentleman means to keep your words and actions strictly on the business at hand, but for some reason it�s more difficult in this setting. Funny thing though, if you do comment about her appearance or tell a joke relating to sex, she�s going to feel uncomfortable, and she�s going to reduce the effort she puts into selling your house.

We live in a society saturated with sex. Open any newspaper or magazine. Drive down the street and notice the billboards. Turn on the T.V., stroll in the mall, sit on the beach, and you can see it, and you can begin to understand the pressures acting on the teller/realtor. To follow even moderate rules of personal dress and grooming in this society means to place yourself squarely in the midst of a highly sexualized atmosphere. It also places you in an environment where comments and actions easily flow out of men and make the day-to-day experiences of women uncomfortable. We call it sexual harassment.

Hilary Gettman, from the University of Maryland, is interested in sexual harassment, but she has a special niche. She studies harassment by clients and customers. It�s a largely unexplored topic, so her most recent projects made several new findings that business owners will want to note.

Gettman began with semi-structured interviews that questioned women about their experiences. Next, she composed a survey that explored three broad areas of interest: 1) the incidence of harassing behaviors, 2) factors of the setting that encourage sexual harassment, and 3) outcomes. She sent out her surveys, and 2,913 women completed them.

Gettman�s survey explored four kinds of sexual harassment: 1) unwanted sexual attention, for example, repeated requests for dates, and attempts to kiss, fondle, or touch; 2) sexist hostility, for example, offensive remarks or put-downs based on gender; 3) sexual hostility, for example, offensive jokes, gestures, or comments about appearance or sexual activities; and 4) sexual coercion, for example, bribes, threats, or punishments to coerce a woman into engaging in sexual activities.

Gettman�s survey also investigated three factors of the work setting that could encourage sexual harassment. The first was client power. When a man has substantial influence on the rewards and punishments a woman receives, then he has power. Important clients of a firm often have such influence through the discretion they exercise in deciding who gets their business.

The second factor was accountability. When men meet with women in isolated settings, as did the realtor in the example described above, they feel encouraged to relax their internal controls and to act and verbalize their thoughts, confident that they won�t be observed by third parties.

Finally, firms vary in the service pressure they create for their employees. Some firms insist that their women persist in friendly behaviors such a smiling and using clients� first names even if the client misinterprets these behaviors as signals of sexual interest. Indeed, some firms encourage this misunderstanding, hoping it will stimulate business.

Gettman�s survey also investigated outcomes of the harassment. These include increased workplace stress, decreased job satisfaction, health issues relating to stress, intentions to seek other employment, and withdrawal from harassing clients. The last two of which are of special interest to business owners and managers.

Gettman found a high frequency of sexual harassment, greater than rates attributed to co-workers. She found that self-employed women and non-white women were much more likely to experience harassment. She found that women experiencing harassment often intend to seek employment elsewhere, and she found them withdrawing from offending clients and customers, asking others to take their place, failing to follow through to seek new business, acting cold and disinterested, and avoiding clients. Finally, she found that elements of the setting, client power and accountability, stimulated sexual harassment, and these factors were exacerbated by service pressure.

Although Gettman�s research is rich in understanding the problem, she offers little help in solving it, and we are left to our own ingenuity to find ways to help. For example, modest dress codes might help, perhaps a uniform. Sensitivity to meeting locations should help, working in teams, revisions in service pressure policy, and new awareness of and instructions for coping with sexual harassment by clients and customers. It�s a start, and it�s important that we make one. Sexual harassment by clients and customers is hurting our businesses. Valued employees are leaving, and the business they could be generating is walking out the door.

Reference: Gettman, Hilary J., and Michele Gelfand (2007) When the Customer Shouldn�t be King: Antecedents and Consequences of Sexual Harassment by Clients and Customers. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(3), 757-770.

© Management Resources

Back to home page