How Features of a Service Job Influence Sexual Harassment

female service worker

Sexual harassment in the workplace is a huge concern for employees and organizations. Employees who work in service-oriented jobs (e.g., a server in a restaurant) face especially high rates of sexual harassment from customers. It is important to consider features of jobs that may influence the extent to which customers may sexually harass employees.

Prior research has suggested that power may be a precursor to sexual harassment. In the context of a service job, there are two types of power to consider: structural power and psychological power. Structural power refers to objective conditions of a job that give others control over one’s resources. For example, customers have structural power when their tips make up a large part of employee compensation. Psychological power refers to internal thoughts and emotions that people have when they feel a sense of power over others. 


Researchers (Kundro et al., 2021) examine how two job features jointly impact sexual harassment from customers. These two factors are (1) employee dependence on customer tips and (2) emotional labor requirements, which is when employees must deliver “service with a smile” regardless of how they feel. The researchers conducted a field study survey of service employees as well as an online experiment from the customer’s perspective.

Results of the two studies show that when employees are required to show deference to customers (i.e. “service with a smile”), something interesting happens. In this situation, the existing customer structural power (dependence on customers’ tips) becomes associated with greater customer psychological power. This psychological power is in turn related to an increase in sexual harassment. 


These findings show that tipping and emotional labor are two features of a job that can lead to customer psychological power and subsequent sexual harassment. Therefore, organizations and management in service-oriented jobs should consider changing either emotional labor requirements or reducing employees’ reliance on tips from customers. Doing so could prevent customers from experiencing psychological power over employees, which in turn could reduce sexual harassment that employees face from customers. Reducing sexual harassment is important for protecting employee health and well-being as well as reducing turnover.


Kundro, T. G., Burke, V., Grandey, A. A., & Sayre, G. M. (2021). A Perfect Storm: Customer Sexual Harassment as a Joint Function of Financial Dependence and Emotional Labor. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication.