When Men Sexually Harass Male Co-Workers, Witnesses Feel the Effects

Why we need to talk about a rarely acknowledged form of workplace harassment
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The essentials

  • An estimated one-third of men experience some form of sexual harassment.
  • A study found that witnesses of male-targeted harassment were more likely to report feelings of anger and fears of being harassed themselves than those who did not witness harassment. They also experienced a significant increase in physical and psychological health symptoms.
  • Witnesses reported higher levels of work withdrawal, such as failing to show up for scheduled meetings or staying out of sight to avoid assignments. They also reported higher levels of workplace deviance.

Thanks largely to the #MeToo movement, we all know a lot more about the insidiousness of sexual harassment in the workplace. Now more than ever, we’re aware of the scale of the problem as well as the lasting effect sexual harassment can have on victims, witnesses, and the overall work environment.

The focus, however, has been largely on female victims — despite research showing that about one-third of men have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the last 12 months. And while some research has been done on the consequences that male victims face, there is still a significant blind spot when it comes to the wider repercussions of male-on-male workplace harassment.

Hoping to close that gap, Angela Dionisi, an assistant professor at Sprott School of Business, Carleton University (and a former PhD student at the Smith School of Business), teamed up with Julian Barling of Smith School of Business to investigate how male-targeted sexual harassment affects employees who witness it.

Why focus on the effects of male harassment on observers rather than on the targets themselves? That’s because researchers have already delved into the negative impact harassment directly has on men, as well as the second-hand effects of witnessing female harassment in the workplace. Much less is known of the ripple effects of male harassment at work.

“The notion that sex-based harassment is a ‘women’s problem’ is not accurate,” says Dionisi. “If we consider that for any one incident of male-targeted harassment, there may be one or multiple witnesses present, the vast and significant reach of this mistreatment becomes clear.”

Horseplay or Humiliation?

Awareness of male sexual harassment is slowly increasing but there’s often a misunderstanding of what it entails. While the sexual harassment of women and men falls under the same category of “gender-based aggression,” in the case of the latter it can be carried out differently, and more often focuses on men who deviate from traditional masculine gender roles. In these instances, men generally harass one another by using behaviour or language that reinforces their expectations of masculinity — such as showing each other nude images of women, engaging in hazing, or using gender-based insults that challenge their masculinity.

The issue with male-targeted sexual harassment, of course, is that it’s often seen as socially acceptable. When actor Terry Crews spoke to the U.S. Senate in 2018 about his alleged sexual assault by someone in the film industry, he said that one of the difficulties of coming out about the experience was having it invalidated. “One man’s horseplay,” he said at the time, “is another man’s humiliation.”

Due to the stigma attached to male-targeted harassment, it’s likely that the number of men who experience sexual harassment in the workplace is even higher than estimates. And while the negative effect on victims is clear and devastating, it’s important for managers to understand that these acts of harassment, despite their frequent normalization, have far-reaching consequences within organizations.

Witnesses Are Angry and Fearful

To study the effects of male harassment in the workplace, Dionisi and Barling surveyed 209 male and female employees in blue-collar, male-dominated U.S. workspaces. They noted the self-reported emotions and behaviours of those who did and did not report witnessing the sexual harassment of a male colleague. When they analyzed the data, a disturbing trend became clear.

For one thing, there was a marked difference in the wellness of employees who had witnessed the sexual harassment of a male colleague compared to those who had not; witnesses were more likely to report feelings of anger and a fear of being harassed themselves. Those increases in anger were also linked to a significant increase in physical and psychological health symptoms. Those who had witnessed harassment reporting feelings of strain, fatigue, headaches, and sleeping and digestive issues at a rate between eight to 35 percent higher than those who did not witness harassment.

Interestingly, female witnesses also reported feeling that co-workers viewed women negatively. “By reinforcing and perpetuating hypermasculine, patriarchal ideals, male gender harassment ultimately communicates messages of male superiority and female subordination to those who encounter it,” Dionisi says. “As a result, although females are not the direct targets of this mistreatment, this behaviour may, in fact, produce a unique form of suffering for female witnesses.”

The Organizational Cost of Disengagement

In the same way that the negative effects of harassment spill over from the target to the witnesses, the fear and anger experienced by co-workers have a real and destructive effect on their workplace behaviours.

Dionisi and Barling found that observing male-on-male harassment predicted a significant spike in levels of work withdrawal and deviance among witnesses. In everyday terms, that means failing to show up for scheduled meetings, staying out of sight to avoid assignments, taking property without permission, and saying hurtful comments to co-workers.

Employees’ commitment to their jobs and employers also took a hit, with observers of male harassment less likely to see a long future at the company or to see their organization’s problems as their own.

Reporting and Counselling

Male-targeted sexual harassment in the workplace clearly has far-reaching consequences for both employees and the employers aiming to cultivate a safe, peaceful, and productive workplace. Fortunately, knowing the full extent of consequences to male harassment can help managers draw attention to the problem and nip it in the bud.

Dionisi and Barling counsel managers to consider the needs of the wider organization after incidents of sexual harassment. Employees should be educated on how to report male harassment in order to help allay their fears and alleviate the negative effects of those incidents. Counselling services should also be offered not only to harassment targets but to the targets’ peers as well.

 “Organizations need to be purposeful in targeting this type of mistreatment,” says Dionisi. “Implementing organization-wide training initiatives that communicate the unacceptability of male gender harassment and incorporate material to dispel the ‘boys will boys’ mentality, will be critical to combatting this problem and the harm it can produce for all employees.”

Kenza Moller

Smith School of Business

Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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