Sexual Harassment Versus Workplace Aggression

Sexual harassment is a common, negative component of organizational life that has received a good deal of research attention in I-O psychology in recent years. However, while understanding this phenomenon is undoubtedly important, there remain other forms of organizational misconduct that can also have a substantial negative impact on organizations and their employees. One of these forms of misconduct is workplace aggression, defined by the authors of the current articles as “nonviolent negative acts perpetrated against organizational members, which organizational members are motivated to avoid” (p. 875). There are several characteristics that sexual harassment and workplace aggression share, but workplace aggression is unique in that it is likely to be experienced, by both men and women, as an attack based not on a particular group affiliation (i.e. gender, race, religion, etc.), but rather, on them personally as an individual.


Hershcovis and Barling conducted two studies that evaluated how reactions to sexual harassment and workplace aggression differ. First, the authors conducted a lab experiment, which revealed that participants made stronger internal attributions (among other attributions) after reading a hypothetical scenario in which they were the target of workplace aggression, relative to participants who read a scenario in which they were the target of sexual harassment. Second, the authors conducted a meta-analysis (or statistical combination of many past studies) assessing the role that workplace aggression and sexual harassment each have on a number of organizational outcomes, such as job satisfaction and turnover intentions. Here, the authors found that workplace aggression was more strongly correlated than sexual harassment with a number of outcomes, suggesting that workplace aggression may play a stronger role in influencing these outcomes than sexual harassment does.


As the authors of the article point out, a lab experiment with a relatively small sample size was utilized in the first study; as such, the current findings should be treated as tentative, and studies should be conducted in the field to see if similar results are obtained in a more natural environment. However, the results in this study hold promise for improving our understanding of the impact that workplace aggression can have on employees. Although sexual harassment has received more legislative and legal attention to this point, it may be the case that workplace aggression is just as damaging, and therefore worthy of additional attention from organizational stakeholders.


Hershcovis, M. S., & Barling, J. (2010). Comparing victim attributions and outcomes for workplace aggression and sexual harassment. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95, 874-888.

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