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11.2 Bad Sex: Harassment

Learning Objective

  1. Discuss sexual harassment in its principal contexts.

The Boss Wants to Sleep with You

The flip side of you deciding to sleep with the boss to get ahead is the boss deciding to sleep with you. In ethical terms, however, and in legal ones also, this situation isn’t just a reversed copy of the previous. When the sleep-up strategy begins with some guy or gal having a few drinks and deciding to make a run through the promotion shortcut, the boss can decline. There’ll be some awkward talk and red faces, but a week later the whole thing will probably have evaporated. What happens, though, when the person initiating the deal isn’t so much an opportunist as a predator, and when it’s not so much about making a quick and steamy bargain as it is a continuously leveled demand?

Sexual harassmentUnwelcome sexual advances or conduct that creates a hostile work environment. with respect to the law is defined this way by the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC): “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”“Facts about Sexual Harassment,” U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, last modified June 27, 2002, accessed July 1, 2011,

The clichéd image of sexual harassment—which may have gotten to be the cliché by being the most accurate and common—is of a middle-age man hiring and hitting on the nubile account executive. She gets the message pretty quickly about exactly why she was selected for the job, and what she’s going to need to do to keep it or advance upward. Whether that’s the most typical scenario or not, both legal and ethical considerations of the issue account for varied exploitation scenarios: harassment can work against diverse people in multiple ways. According to the EEOC statement,

  • The victim as well as the harasser may be a woman or a man. The victim does not have to be of the opposite sex.
  • The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, an agent of the employer, a supervisor in another area, a coworker, or a nonemployee.
  • The victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
  • Unlawful sexual harassment may occur without economic injury to the victim.
  • The harasser’s conduct must be unwelcome.“Facts about Sexual Harassment,” U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, last modified June 27, 2002, accessed July 1, 2011,

A number of ambiguities knot attempts to deal with harassment in the courts. Starting with the term sexual advances, everyone knows from their own experience that someone standing fifty yards off and staring can be tremendously disconcerting, while someone else rushing up, draping themselves over us, and sighing, “You’re hot!” can be a funny joke. It’s hard to set down in words exactly what an advance is. Similar uncertainties plague attempts to define just what constitutes the unwelcome part of unwelcome advances because, again, different individuals have very distinct ways of feeling and expressing displeasure.

On the other end, even if the advance is clear, and even if it’s clearly unwelcome, when do accumulated come-ons add up to a hostile work environment? In some situations, people will feel pressured months after a single polite invitation to dinner has been firmly refused, while in other places the boss’s daily proposal to “Get blind drunk together and see what happens” will seem more absurd than threatening. None of this changes the fact that the law’s intention is clear. People aren’t allowed to make sex an employment requirement or contaminate the workplace by acting like it’s a singles’ bar. Anyone who breaks those rules may be subject to prosecution, especially if the behavior is persistent and continues even after discomfort has been explicitly reported.

How is the gap between a clear legal intention and a messy real world bridged? Courts have sought to alleviate the problem of different people seeing things in different ways with a reasonable person modelA way of answering questions by appealing to how a typical, reasonable person would respond if asked.. The basic questions at the core of harassment cases—“Is it an unwanted sexual advance?” and “Is it a hostile work environment?”—are answered, as far as the law is concerned, by the response a reasonable person would give if informed of the situation. Of course, reasonable people once believed the earth was flat, so it’s not clear that the reasonable person definition will entirely withstand the tremendous variety of situations in which people come together. Still, the model certainly advances the discussion. The fact that any accusation of harassment, or any defense in the face of an accusation, must pass through the test does wring out extreme cases. The accuser who complains that the boss once winked, or the boss who claims not to have realized that advances were unwelcome even after receiving a glass of ice water in the lap, probably won’t get much sympathy in the eyes of a judge.

Sex, Harassment, and Ethics

Sexual harassment is difficult to justify, and easy to condemn, with nearly all mainstream ethical theories.

  • The general welfare, most agree, is well served by a workplace where everyone can work, where labor can be done without the impediments of annoying and molesting come-ons. There are other spots and times that are designated for romantic socializing, and in general, we all get along most harmoniously when we keep our various activities in the places they’re expected to be. Exceptions exist, but looking at the situation broadly, utilitarianism—which sets the general welfare as the highest good—comes down against overly aggressive advances at work.
  • More individualistic and liberty-oriented ethics that privilege freedom and each person’s unique expression and aspirations as the guiding ideal for action will likely agree that a workplace plagued by harassment is one where individuals’ freedom to pursue their own hopes and careers is being significantly impeded. The harasser, of course, can always insist that he or she is free to toss out as many blunt invitations as he or she may choose, but it must be remembered that all freedom-based theories restrict us to actions that don’t limit the freedom of others.
  • Basic duty theory, which orients ethics in the workplace around the specific imperative to honesty, also rejects harassment because no sane boss is going to admit to it. Harassment, in other words, will likely lead to lying. Along the same lines, the duty to fidelity (keeping our promises) also prohibits harassment assuming the original working agreement was about work and not romance. Finally, the duty to respect others as dignified human beings—worthy of being treated as ends and not means—leaves little room for hostile workplaces.

An ethical review of workplace sexual harassment shows that the practice is difficult to justify. Similar confidence can be attached to a related subject: victimization. VictimhoodWithin the field of sexual harrasment, falsely accusing another of harassment as a way of injuring him or her., in its extreme form, is falsely claiming to suffer harassment as a way of injuring another, very likely a supervisor. Since the accusation is a lie, it will, in most cases, fail an ethical review. Also in terms of the utilitarian principle of the greatest good, it’s probable that society won’t be benefited by people flinging false accusations of sex harassment. In general, the ethical difficulties surrounding victimhood are practical. They surround this question: how can individuals be protected against retributive and false claims of harassment without making the accusation impossible to level?

Probably the most interesting—and conflictive—ground for the subject of sexual advances in the office is the intercultural workplace: situations where employees from distinct nations with divergent customs and habits are asked to work together.

Academic studies have carefully shown how cultural differences affect attitudes about sex, sexual advances, and hostility at work. In one study, American, Australian, and German collegians were offered written scenarios of sexual overtures in offices. Responses from all three nationalities were similar, but as a group, they were far more likely to brand the episodes with terms like harassment than were their peers from Brazil. Faced with the same scenarios, the Brazilians tended to see only innocuous pokes at romance and sex that didn’t constitute abuse of power or create a hostile environment. A similar experiment showed a comparable split between typical adults living in the United States (more prone to see harassment) and Ecuador (more likely to see scenarios as flirtatious or harmless sexual jousting).Jennifer Zimbroff, “Cultural Differences in Perceptions of and Responses to Sexual Harassment,” Duke Journal of Gender Law and Policy (2007): 1311, accessed June 1, 2011, Pol%27y+1311; E. R DeSouza and C. S. Hutz, “Reactions to Refusals of Sexual Advances among U.S. and Brazilian Men and Women,” Sex Roles 34, nos. 7–8 (1996): 549–65.

Researchers speculate that the distinct responses to the situations don’t indicate superficial differences of opinion, or divergences in local laws, but go much deeper into sweeping ways people understand sex and socializing and men and women together. South American culture is generally more eroticized, more tolerant of displays of nudity, and more accepting of raw gestures toward sex. Of course you can’t miss how much more comfortable men and women are with their displayed bodies if you visit Carnaval in Brazil, but it goes beyond that. Something simple—a comment asserting that the workday passes more agreeably when the woman a few cubicles down wears one of her shorter skirts—comes off very differently in South America (where few would object) than the United States (where just citing the example will make some people wince). The expectations, acceptance, and enjoyment surrounding sex and suggestion at work, the conclusion is, aren’t any different from the rules governing which side of the street you drive on, or how much can be revealed at the beach; they’re different at different places.Eros R. DeSouza, “Gender Differences in the Interpretation of Social-Sexual Behavior: A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Sexual Harassment,” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, September 1, 1997.

Cultural differences don’t make much difference as long as cultural places remain fixed. But in a world of multinational corporations and falling trade barriers, large organizations (and small ones too) are going to explore international markets. Mixed nationalities in the office are going to follow. Then what? What happens if an American TV station, impressed by the rating-busting success of Russian Sergei Moskvin—the producer behind the topless news program, Naked Truth—invites him to come to America? No one should be too surprised if Moskvin spends the first day in the office bouncing around asking female reporters to give him a waist-up look. And no one should be too surprised if one, a few, or all of the reporters (including the men) protest and maybe file a lawsuit. In ethical terms, there are a number of strategies for resolving these clashes of expectations and customs. In general, they divide into two groups:

  1. Those working from a culturalist ethical perspective
  2. Those planted in one of the traditional approaches

Office Sex from a Culturalist Perspective

A culturalist ethicsThe definition of ethical right and wrong as aligning with a society’s accepted rules and norms of behavior. defines right and wrong as simply aligning with a society’s accepted rules and norms for behavior. For example, in the States we consider ownership of land that we’ve legally purchased to be legitimately ours; part of what we morally owe each other is respect for possessions. According to the customs and traditions practiced by indigenous peoples in southern Mexico, however, the very idea of private land is immoral. All land, in the ethical sense, belongs to everyone, which explains why the plots used for farming are divided and redivided each year in accord with the dictates of the village chief or consul. So which society is right? Should possession of a plot be determined by a deed or by the chief’s voice? According to a culturalist ethics, either one. It just depends on where you happen to be when the decision gets made. Wherever you are, if you decide in accordance with local customs and traditions, you’re right.

Moving this over to the issue of harassment, the answer to the question “What’s an unwelcome sexual advance?” isn’t answered by recourse to specific dos and don’ts; it’s simply the common practice and expectations of those making up the larger culture where the business is located. If repeatedly making suggestive comments about how much better the day feels when the woman down the row is short-skirted counts as a hostile work environment in the United States, then it is a hostile one. If the same tone and words are accepted as perfectly normal and appropriate in Brazil, then they are appropriate. No further ethical discussion is required.

Departing from this origin, there are two main resolutions to sex problems coming up in international offices:

  1. The “When in Rome…” solution (or local deference ethical strategyAccepting that the customs and habits of those forming a society should provide guidance for all those entering the society.) accepts the basic culturalist argument that right and wrong is nothing more than the customs and habits of those forming a society. People joining that society (like Sergei Moskvin coming to America) can expect a kind of grace period while they figure things out, but they must ultimately come into line with local practices. Moskvin will be excused, in other words, for asking women to take off their shirts, but only for the first few days.

    Expecting others to adapt to local customs is a reasonable way to manage intercultural ethical conflicts, and it works well for those receiving workers from other places. The catch is that the same logic works the other way. If an American multinational media company expands into the Russian market, then the local partners are going to be standing on solid ground when they begin asking for a level of exposure—female, male, both, or whatever—that doesn’t sit well in the United States. In this kind of situation, employees sent abroad will naturally be uneasy about expectations. Probably some will embrace the change with a sense of adventure while others will recoil, but regardless of the attitude, everyone will probably find themselves in at least a few uncomfortable situations. As for the larger organization trying to hold a business together while spanning various nations and cultures, this is an incurable difficulty with simply accepting local ethics. The resulting ethical schizophrenia—rules within an organization switching as fast as employees are assigned to one or another country—makes setting a specific and coherent corporate culture in the area of sex almost impossible.

  2. The multicultural respect ethical strategyAccepting that the customs and habits of members of diverse societies are legitimate and should be respected no matter where they may be. also accepts the basic culturalist argument that right and wrong are defined mainly by the customs and habits of those forming a society. In this case, however, people moving to other places aren’t expected to adapt. Those others are expected to accept. When, for example, people from other places come to America, basic respect for the autonomous value and dignity of their customs and habits demands that their behavior be tolerated, even if it gives offense to many locals. In the case of Sergei Moskvin, people in the office will just have to deal with the fact that for him there’s not a big difference between exposing one’s face to the camera and one’s chest.

    This respectful response to intercultural ethical conflict is reasonable, even laudable for its tolerance of diversity. The problem, however, underlying the “When in Rome…” strategy continues within a context of multicultural respect: it leaves organizations in an impossible situation when it comes to formalizing policies and procedures governing all those working in all the international offices.

Office Sex from a Traditional Perspective

Most traditional ethical theories approach the multicultural workplace more objectively. They insist that the moral rules of right and wrong transcend cultural diversity, and so open the way to claiming that certain behaviors are acceptable, and others unacceptable, no matter where the workplace happens to be or what countries the employees call home. The Russian news producer Sergei Moskvin plays by the same rules as the Ohio anchorwoman Sharon Reed, and that goes whether they’re in Russia, Ohio, or anywhere else.

The traditional approaches—especially duty theory and rights-based thought—work together fairly well in the areas of sexual innuendo, advances, and harassment: the actions they recommend can be construed to more or less fall in line with standard practices in America and Europe (which, not surprisingly, are also centers of the theories’ historical development and interpretation). That clears the way to affirming that those who come to the United States to work will need to adapt their behavior dealing with sex in the office to something resembling the codes of conduct normally in place here. More, organizations opening offices overseas will also implement those codes because the codes’ justification rests on arguments that function independently of local habits.

One clear advantage to this solution to questions about sexual advances in the office is that it allows more or less uniform regulations for conduct, no matter who happens to be working, or where they happen to be. The main problem, however, with this solution is that it breeds accusations of insensitivity to other cultures and customs. More broadly, American attitudes about sex in the workplace—when they’re forced on those who work for American multinationals in other countries—lead to charges of cultural imperialism.

In the economic world, cultural imperialismIn business ethics, the charge that multinational companies are forcing a single set of ethical codes and attitudes on people with divergent histories, habits, and customs., which fits besides terms like the ugly American and globalization, is the charge that US companies are imposing attitudes on local populations, imposing on people with different histories and customs who value and want to preserve their different ways of being—and getting—together.

Key Takeaways

  • Sexual harassment occurs when unwelcome sexual advances or conduct creates a hostile work environment.
  • Because sexual language is frequently suggestive more than explicit, and because diverse individuals relate to their own sexuality in distinct ways, it’s very difficult to form explicit rules defining sexual harassment.
  • Sexual behavior is culturally diverse, leading to problems in workplaces with international participants.

Review Questions

  1. In your own words, what is sexual harassment?
  2. Sketch two ethical arguments against sex harassment in the workplace.
  3. Why might cultural diversity create sexual conflicts in an office?
  4. What is the multicultural respect response to sexual tensions in an international office?
  5. Why might a multinational corporation’s policy dealing with sexual issues seem sensible in the United States but be viewed with hatred by employees in overseas offices?