Workplace Harassment: Once, Twice or Three Times as Harmful?

Posted on June 14, 2010

Queen’s School of Business Research Explores Effect of Different Types of Workplace Harassment as Ontario Ushers in Sweeping New Legislation

A single type of workplace harassment on its own can be just as harmful to an employee as being exposed to one or even two additional types of harassment, according to new research from Queen’s School of Business published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. However, general workplace harassment — the causes of which are more difficult to pinpoint — can actually be harder for victims to tolerate than racial or gender harassment, which are typically rooted in bias.

The study also reveals that Caucasians report higher levels of general workplace harassment than minorities, and, surprisingly, women are not more likely than men to experience either gender harassment or general workplace harassment.

The new research is particularly relevant in Ontario this month, with the introduction of Bill 168: The Occupational Health and Safety Act, a new law that requires employers to put into place policies and programs regarding workplace harassment. With this legislation, Ontario joins Quebec and Saskatchewan as the only three jurisdictions in North America that have legislation forbidding general workplace harassment.

“Even with the best preventative measures in place, harassment may still occur,” caution the authors, Jana L. Raver of Queen’s School of Business, and Lisa H. Nishii of Cornell University. “If it does, leaders should clearly communicate to employees that they are taking the situation seriously and that all forms of mistreatment are unacceptable.”

While evidence has increasingly demonstrated that targets of harassment often experience multiple forms of mistreatment, there has been no exhaustive research until now on how different forms of harassment combine to influence outcomes.

The study by Queen’s School of Business researcher Jana Raver and Lisa Nishii of Cornell University breaks new ground by investigating the ways in which ethnic harassment (EH), gender harassment (GH) and generalized workplace harassment (GWH), sometimes called workplace aggression/bullying, combine to predict outcomes for individual targets.
The focus of the research was to uncover whether several hostile experiences would have an additive effect (i.e. each new type of harassment adds to the target’s level of negative outcomes), an inurement effect (i.e. two or more types of harassment in conjunction do not predict a significant increase in negative outcomes compared with one type alone) or an exacerbation effect (i.e. one type of harassment heightens a target’s state of arousal, making it more likely they will appraise new situations as threatening).

Professors Raver and Nishii conclude that their results support the theory that people subconsciously steel themselves against the harmful effects of workplace harassment by establishing an adaptation level, which may prevent them from experiencing additional harm when faced with a second type of harassment.

“Each type of harassment is independently associated with a host of negative strain outcomes,” the authors write. “With that said, it only takes a single type of harassment to predict negative consequences; secondary or tertiary types of harassment did not further reduce job-related attitudes and turnover intent.”

The findings also suggest that general workplace harassment had stronger relationships with negative outcomes than did ethnic harassment or gender harassment, and that tolerating the harmful effect of additional harassment experiences may be more difficult when general workplace harassment is involved. While ethnic harassment and gender harassment can both be attributed to prejudice, GWH is a subtle form of mistreatment that masks underlying motives, and is not as easily attributed to bias.

Raver and Nishii further suggest that GWH may be especially detrimental because unlike gender and ethnic harassment, it is not illegal in most of North America, which may cause anxiety about the lack of recourse for addressing GWH.

The researchers conclude that “if organizational leaders fail to enforce their anti-harassment policies, employees may conclude that the climate supports harassment, leading to more harassment and organizational backlash. Building inclusive environments and squelching harassment when it does occur will go a long way toward building an environment for healthy and productive employees.”

The final sample for Study 1 was 226 employees, 72 per cent of whom were female. The racial representation was 64 per cent Caucasian, 11 per cent African American, nine per cent Asian, three per cent Hispanic and 13 per cent biracial or other. They were asked to respond to a survey relating to their work environment, employee relations and job attitudes. Respondents were asked to indicate how frequently they experiences harassing and exclusionary forms of harassment over the past 24 months on a scale ranging from one (never) to five (almost always).

In Study 2, two samples with a total of 735 employees from a diverse range or organizations and occupations were examined over a period of four weeks. The final sample was 58 per cent female and 80 per cent Caucasian. Participants completed the measures of harassment and demographics in the first survey and then completed measures of job attitudes, turnover intentions, psychological well-being and health in the second survey four weeks later.

About Queen’s School of Business:
Queen’s School of Business is one of the world’s premier business schools – renowned for exceptional programs, outstanding faculty and research, and the quality of its graduates. Canadian executives regard Queen’s as Canada’s most innovative business school, offering students academic excellence and a superior overall experience. Queen’s School of Business – where Canada’s first Commerce program was launched in 1919 – is located at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. The School also delivers programs at locations across Canada, as well in the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates.

# # #
For more information, please contact:

Amber Wallace
Queen’s School of Business