Harassment’s Insidious Shockwaves

Abuse at work or home spills over into other environments and can affect future career and romantic success
yelling workers

The essentials

Two teams of Queen’s School of Business researchers studied the spillover of harassment from work to home and home to work. Manon Mireille LeBlanc and Julian Barling of Queen’s School of Business and Nick Turner of University of Manitoba examined the forms of abuse by a romantic partner that have the biggest repercussions for a woman’s performance at work. Experiencing physical aggression was positively associated with withdrawal from work, while being victimized by psychological aggression predicts lower grades. Researchers Angela Dionisi (now with Carleton University) and Julian Barling showed how the negative emotions that women experience as a result of workplace harassment can lead to declines in romantic relationship functioning for both themselves and their romantic partners.

In the 2005 movie North Country, based on the real-life story of Josey Aimes, a woman returns to her hometown in Minnesota to escape an abusive husband, only to be victimized by pervasive sexual harassment at work. Desperate for money, Aimes takes the highest-paying job she can get: a position in the town’s iron mine. She soon discovers why there are so few female miners: the male miners are physically and psychologically abusive. Aimes becomes distraught and angry, emotions that spill over into her family life. 

Two teams of Queen’s School of Business researchers dissected the theme at the heart of North Country — the spillover of harassment from one domain into another — showing the toll that it takes on personal relationships and career prospects.

In a paper published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, Manon Mireille LeBlanc and Julian Barling of Queen’s School of Business and Nick Turner of University of Manitoba examined the forms of abuse by a romantic partner that have the biggest repercussions for a  woman’s performance at work. While previous research has largely focused on the effect of physical partner aggression, the researchers also explored the impact of psychological abuse. They studied the extent to which psychologically abused women lose focus and fail to deliver expected results, their absenteeism record, and the effects of aggression on performance in the form of academic achievement.

In the first study of three, their subjects were selected from three groups: those who were satisfied in their marriages and not abused; those not happy in their marriages but not abused; and those who were both maritally dissatisfied and abused. The 50 study participants were recruited via newspapers, posts in battered women’s shelters, and a not-for-profit service that recruits study subjects.

Experiencing physical aggression was positively associated with withdrawal from work, while being victimized by psychological aggression predicts lower grades

The 19 women who were maritally dissatisfied and abused were not a happy lot. But the study found that despite frequently neglecting their duties at work, they did not withdraw from employment. The authors attributed this to the women’s need for self-sufficiency trumping all else.

“Consistent with a perspective that intimate partner aggression reflects behaviours that are intended to boost and maintain male superiority while enhancing female dependence, it becomes even more critical in such a situation that women engage in behaviours that maintain their economic independence,” the authors point out.

In the second study, which focused on the effects of physical and psychological aggression, the researchers noted a bigger impact on a woman’s work performance. Experiencing physical aggression was positively associated with withdrawal from work. “Inter-partner psychological aggression also had effects on partial absenteeism,” they note, “over and above the effects of physical aggression.”

The third study, which looked at younger women, is possibly most troubling, as it suggests the behaviour of a bad boyfriend in college or university can have lingering effects. Focusing on the impact of inter-partner aggression on academic achievement among female university students, the researchers found that although physical aggression doesn’t seem to greatly affect grades, psychological aggression — such as lowering self-esteem through negative commentary — does. 

“The finding that psychological aggression predicts lower grades may have negative long-term consequences for victims: lower grades might well limit subsequent career prospects and possibilities for further study by students.”

Spillover From Work to Home

A second QSB research team looked at harassment spillover from the opposite direction: how being targeted with sexual harassment at work affects a woman’s home life. Researchers Angela Dionisi (now with Carleton University) and Julian Barling probed how harassed women function in their romantic relationships, and how the negative emotions they experience as a result of workplace harassment may lead to declines in romantic relationship functioning for both themselves and their romantic partners. 

In the study, 66 women, recruited through an online database of people willing to be studied, were surveyed on their levels of gender harassment and their anger at being harassed. These women and their romantic partners were then asked about their levels of romantic relationship satisfaction, happiness, conflict, and regret.

Dionisi and Barling found that targets’ anger from workplace harassment “was negatively associated with romantic relationship adjustment.” 

“Our findings support the notion that third parties also suffer as a result of workplace aggression, which they do not experience personally and over which they have no direct control.”

These two studies should give managers something to think about. Organizations are generally reluctant to get involved in the personal and family lives of their employees but this attitude may be shortsighted. As Dionisi and Barling point out, research has shown cases of sexual harassment and workplace aggression drop when organizational policies clearly prohibit such behaviour. Educating managers and employees about intimate partner aggression as well as gender harassment at work, having policies in place to address these forms of mistreatment, and fostering a supportive climate, can all help assure female employees that the organization is a safe place in which help is available.

Anna Sharratt

Smith School of Business
Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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