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September 20, 2019

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Surveying men about bad behavior in the workplace

The victims of sexual harassment who have recently come forward are far from alone: Nearly half of women say they have experienced some form of it at work at least once in their careers. But there has been little research about those responsible for it.

A new survey suggests how widespread the behavior is, and the role that companies play in allowing it to happen. About a third of men said they had done something at work within the past year that would qualify as objectionable behavior or sexual harassment, and they were more likely to have done so when they had managers who looked the other way.

The survey — the result of a collaboration between The New York Times, leading sexual harassment researchers, and the polling and media company Morning Consult — asked men about a spectrum of behavior, ranging from whether they had told sexual stories or jokes that some might consider offensive, to whether they had implied better treatment if someone were sexually cooperative.

How many men admit it?

The most common type of activity that men acknowledged is what researchers call gender harassment. This includes telling crude jokes or stories and sharing inappropriate videos. About 25 percent of men in the survey — a nationally representative sample — said they had done at least one of these things.

Another category is unwanted sexual attention: actions like touching, making comments about someone’s body and asking colleagues on dates after they have said no. About 10 percent of men reported such behavior. Least common is sexual coercion, which includes pressuring people into sexual acts by offering rewards or threatening retaliation. Two percent of men said they had done such a thing recently.

Some men were probably unwilling to tell the truth. But the results captured, perhaps surprisingly, just how many admitted to some form of this behavior.

After answering questions about particular behaviors, the men were asked if some of their own actions might be considered harassment. Many did not identify harassing behaviors as such. But even counting only those who said yes, the survey suggests that, at a minimum, 1 in 25 men in the average American workplace identifies himself as a harasser. (An additional 2 in 25 said they did not know whether their actions could be classified in this way.)

The actions in the survey do not necessarily meet the legal standard for sexual harassment. But they fall under a psychological standard that is used more often by researchers, in corporate policies and in everyday life.

Legally, harassment is considered problematic if it is severe, like groping or offering favors for a sexual interaction, or if the behavior is frequent and continuing, even if it is not severe.

“In general, frequency is the most important component,” said Louise Fitzgerald, a leading researcher on sexual harassment, who for the past 30 years has advised on the issue for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the departments of Defense and Justice. “Even milder forms of harassment can be extremely damaging if they happen frequently and continue over time.”

In the Times polling, 12 percent of men said that they had either engaged in at least three listed actions in the past year, or performed the same action at least three times. Excluding jokes or remarks cuts that figure in half.

But actions like jokes may not be entirely benign. Men who admitted to telling sexual stories or jokes were about five times as likely to report other harassing behaviors.

Crucial role of workplace culture

The phenomenon cuts across demographic divides, the poll shows. Harassing behaviors are committed by blue-collar and white-collar workers, Democrats and Republicans, the young and the old, the married and the unmarried, high earners and low ones, people who feel powerful at work and those who do not.

“Most harassment is not by high-profile celebrities,” Fitzgerald said. “This is so common in places that are very far from the spotlight. This is endemic.”

A major difference between those who harass and those who do not is the culture at their workplace. Behaviors associated with harassment are especially prevalent among men who say their company does not have guidelines against harassment, hotlines to report it or punishment for perpetrators, or who say their managers do not care.

In short, organizations play a big role in curbing or permitting harassment, said Vicki Magley, a professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut.

“Research finds that sexual harassment occurs when it is tolerated — that is, when policies are not enforced and when incidents are not taken seriously,” she said.

The behavior of colleagues, especially immediate leaders, also has a powerful effect on whether men engage in harassing behavior, according to research by John Pryor, an emeritus distinguished professor of psychology at Illinois State University. “We find that they won’t do that when there is a presence of a role model who models professional behavior,” Pryor said. “Social norms come into play.”

What women say

Workplace harassment may be decreasing. In surveys of federal government employees, the percentage of women who said they had experienced one of eight harassing behaviors in the last two years was 18 percent, less than half the percentage it was in 1994.

Still, harassment is widespread in American workplace. And perhaps most notably, culprits are not restricted to the bad actors themselves, but include the climates created by their co-workers and supervisors.

About the Surveys

Morning Consult conducted online surveys with 615 men who work full time from Nov. 27 to Dec. 4. It also surveyed 653 men and women about their colleagues from Dec. 19-21. SSRS conducted telephone interviews with 488 employed men from Dec. 6- 17.