Workers sexually harassed by customers unlikely to tell their boss: research

Workers sexually harassed by customers unlikely to tell their boss: research

Retail and hospitality workers who are sexually harassed by customers are unlikely to ever tell their manager or boss, according to a study by a researcher from the University of Sydney.

Laura Good, who is a research assistant at Melbourne University’s Centre for Workplace Leadership, conducted in-depth interviews with 20 casual and part-time retail and hospitality workers in Sydney and Newcastle as part of her honours thesis at the University of Sydney Business School in 2013.

Good told SmartCompany 15 of 20 interviewees were found to have experienced sexual harassment by customers in their workplaces, but it was “very rare” for the employees to report the incidents to their managers.

Instead, Good says the workers either ignored the advances from their customers, laughed them off with a colleague, asked a colleague to help them deal with it, or in some cases, approached the customer directly.

But in cases where the worker experienced unwanted sexual advances from multiple customers, approaching them directly was often not effective in stopping the behaviour.

Good says the key factor behind the workers reluctance to report the behaviour was a “lack of understanding of what sexual harassment is, especially from customers”.

“It’s not necessarily what you think about when you think about sexual harassment,” she says.

The workers interviewed by Good reported customers making sexually explicit suggestions, repeatedly asking them out, staring at them or in some cases, touching them.

Other examples included the workers being contacted on Facebook by customers, being physically grabbed by customers and in one case, a customer exposed their genitals to a worker.

The nature of the employee’s work environment also played a part, says Good, who found workers in a service environment say part of their role is to be friendly but that can be misunderstood by customers as “a deep personal interest” in the customer.

When that customer makes a sexual comment or joke, some of the workers believed they were “complicit” in the behaviour, says Good.

And the age-old saying of ‘the customer is always right’ is also a factor, says Good.

“Some of the employees had internalised that attitude,” says Good.

“Customers in retail and hospitality treat them disrespectfully so the employees then expected to be treated that way, that it is something to be put up with.”

For employers wanting to address sexual harassment by customers, Good recommends ensuring a sexual harassment policy is in place and that everyone in the workplace is aware of it.

She says the policy should specifically reference harassment by customers and clients and make it clear that kind of harassment is not acceptable.

“There also needs to be more training for employees about what sexual harassment is,” says Good.

“It’s not just a leery old boss.”

But training for managers and employers is equally important, says Good, who says some managers might not be aware of their responsibilities.  

“Detailed grievance procedures of what to do [when harassment occurs] should be in place so employees can go to their manager and feel comfortable their manager will respond,” she says.

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