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Notre Dame’s Tenbrunsel: A New Way To View Sexual Harassment

Ann E. Tenbrunsel

Ann E. Tenbrunsel of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame

Sexual harassment has been big news for the last couple of years, fueled by the #MeToo movement and allegations against high-profile figures like Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer.

But it goes way beyond the entertainment industry to many kinds of workplaces and does great damage to organizations and to the women who comprise most of its victims. 

Now, a study by Poets&Quants’ Professor of the Week, Ann E. Tenbrunsel of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, and other scholars points towards a new way to understand sexual harassment and, unusual for an academic paper published in a peer-reviewed journal, proposes some actions organizations can take to combat this pernicious practice.

WHY SEXUAL HARASSMENT IS AN ETHICAL ISSUE

The paper, which focuses on academia but has lessons for all organizations, was co-written by McKenzie R. Rees of the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University and Kristina A. Diekmann of the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah. Entitled “Sexual Harassment in Academia: Ethical Climates and Bounded Ethicality,” it appeared earlier this year in the Annual Review of Psychology.

The study, which was a comprehensive review of the literature on sexual harassment, starts with the premise that sexual harassment is an ethical issue because it violates core moral principles. Gender and power usually determine who will be the perpetrator and who the victim. Leaders—and leaders’ own ethics–set the tone for the whole organization, whose rules and culture either promote or discourage sexual harassment. 

The very legal protections organizations put in place to adjudicate claims of sexual harassment become barriers to actually stopping it. The concepts of “ethical fading” and “motivated blindness” prevent people from recognizing sexual harassment for what it is, allowing harassers to continue to harass and preventing observers and victims from reporting it to superiors. Finally, if individuals and organizations fail to confront sexual harassment in its early stages—supposed “jokes” and inappropriate comments—it can be a “slippery slope” leading inexorably to major violations and organizational crises.

SEXUAL HARASSMENT DOES NOT TAKE PLACE IN A VACUUM

Sexual harassment, Tenbrunsel and her co-authors note, does not take place in a vacuum. Leadership matters, as does the culture of organizations. “Leaders serve as role models for others in the organization,” they write. “The ethical and unethical behavior of a leader can have a trickle-down effect, influencing more than just the subordinates who report to the leader.”

That’s particularly true in organizations, like academia, that are dominated by men who have entrenched power (such as tenured professors) while women’s status is precarious, dependent on senior male faculty for job security and future opportunities. The parallels with corporations are clear.

Almost all organizations have stated policies against sexual harassment and legal and human resources departments to enforce them. But, the authors note, “the focus on avoiding legal implications leads to a check-the-box mentality and overemphasis on compliance rather than effective measures to address sexual harassment.” Organizations, seeking to avoid litigation, often come to settlements and nondisclosure termination agreements with accused harassers, which does not alleviate the underlying problem.

RECOMMENDING STEPS THAT ORGANIZATIONS SHOULD TAKE

That system—as well as “ethical fading” by perpetrators and “motivated blindness” by hear-no-evil, see-no-evil supervisors and peers—allows a culture of sexual harassment to fester. So, “harassers, victims, and observers may all experience the slippery slope, discounting progressively more egregious sexually harassing acts over time,” Tenbrunsel and her co-authors write. “Each of these processes facilitates the perpetuation and intensification of sexual harassment.”

At the paper’s conclusion, Tenbrunsel and her co-authors lay out several steps organizations can take to prevent or mitigate sexual harassment:

  1. Promote gender equality at all levels of an organization as the best defense against sexual harassment.
  2. Reframe sexual harassment as an ethical, not a legal, problem that harms the organization and all employees.
  3. Train employees to recognize and eschew “ethical fading” and “motivated blindness” and make reporting of sexual harassment mandatory. 
  4. Report “minor” acts of sexual harassment to prevent the “slippery slope” from becoming slippier.

Tenbrunsel and her colleagues’ findings are new and their recommendations untried, but they offer a fresh look at a very serious problem and some ways to fix it.

Tenbrunsel, 55, is the David E. Gallo Professor of Business Ethics at Mendoza. Her research focuses on ethical and unethical decision making and issues of gender and sexual harassment. She teaches classes in management, leadership, and negotiations to MBAs, executive MBAs, and undergraduates.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of Michigan and her MBA and Ph.D. (in organizational behavior) from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. She has taught at Mendoza since 1995. 

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