Types of Harassers

Marital status, level in the organisation and age do not exclude people from being harassers. It appears than in many cases alcohol reduces inhibitions, and people who normally would not, become harassers. In many cases sexual harassment could also be linked to self-esteem problems on the side of the perpetrator, causing a need to "prove himself". While behaviour and motives vary between individuals, we can probably divide harassers into six broad classes:

Mr Macho, or One-of-the-boys

This is usually linked to the bravado mentioned above, when groups of men embarrass women with comments, unwanted compliments or even physical evaluation, lewd jokes or gestures, and display of sexually distasteful posters. All these could create a hostile environment, and even if it goes no further than verbal and visual harassment, most women experience this as humiliating and disturbing.

The Great Gallant

This mostly verbal harassment occurs when the "gallant" pays excessive compliments and makes personal comments that are out of place or embarrass the recipient. While most men and women appreciate recognition and genuine compliments, comments focused on the appearance and the sex of a worker - rather than her competence or her contribution - are usually unwelcome. Such compliments are sometimes also accompanied by a possessive pride or by leering looks. Although the giver of compliments may see himself as the gallant gentleman, the recipient usually experiences him as patronising or annoying, or both.

The Opportunist

This kind of harasser is usually fairly promiscuous in his attentions to female staff, suppliers or clients. Whenever the opportunity presents itself - in the elevator, when working late, on a business trip, at the office party, when alone in an office or a car with a female colleague - the "office groper's" eyes and hands start wandering. Every birthday, farewell or special occasion is also an opportunity to insist on (usually begrudged) kisses. Some of this behaviour may take place in public, but if not repelled, he is likely to try to go further in private. If confronted, he will insist that the women like and enjoy his attentions; or even that the single and divorced women "need it".

The Power-player

In this case harassment is a power game, where the man insists on sexual favours in exchange for benefits he can dispense because of his position: getting or keeping a job, promotion, orders, bank overdrafts, getting a drivers' licence, and so on. The Hollywood "casting couch" is probably the best-known example. Evidently some local trade union leaders have also forced women "to pay in kind" for admission to their unions. This can be described as "quid pro quo" harassment, and is closely allied to blackmail. Besides the effect on the victims, this form of harassment is an abuse of power and trust. It can lead to bad business decisions, and can cost the company dearly in terms of effectiveness, the cost of special favours, and company image.

The Serial Harasser

The most difficult type of harasser to identify, and the most difficult to deal with, is the one I describe as the serial harasser. This person is compulsive and often has serious psychological problems. He carefully builds up an image so that people would find it hard to believe ill of him, plans his approaches carefully, and strikes in private where it is his word against that of a subordinate. He can do a lot of damage before he is found out. Although serial harassers are in the minority, managers and personnel professionals should be aware of this possibility. This person's aberrant behaviour is often a call for help, rather than deliberate harassment, as is usually the case in the above four types. In this case counselling is probably more important than mere disciplinary action.

The Situational Harasser

The trigger to this person's behaviour is usually psychological, but more situational than compulsive. Incidents are often linked to specific life situations or emotional or medical problems, such as divorce, wife's illness, impotence, hormonal imbalance, prostate disease, or psychiatric or systemic disturbances that suppress the higher brain functions, such as Alzheimer's and alcoholism. If the situation changes or the disease is brought under control, the harassment usually stops - but by then both victim and harasser have been harmed.

The content on this page was last updated on 5 September 2013