O.K. Carter: An old new model to guard against sexual harassment in the workplace

Professors Jim Quick and M. Ann McFadyen


More than 70 percent of women say they’ve experienced some level of harassment on the job, and that’s a conservative estimate since many incidents go unreported.

Though sexual harassment in the workplace and health epidemics wouldn’t seem to be issues that can be resolved comparably, a pair of professors at the University of Texas at Arlington College of Business have picked up national attention for suggesting exactly that: So much so that they were recently featured in the Harvard Business Review.

Professors Jim Quick and M. Ann McFadyen, using two decades of research on sexual harassment – McFadyen joining the collaboration in 2011 – have concluded that the ongoing tsunami of “me too” issues focusing on sexual harassment signals that it’s time for a cultural reset in the workplace.

“Leaders and managers simply cannot afford to maintain the status quo,” Quick wrote in the HBR article.

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In a recent follow-up interview on that topic, McFadyen – who teaches MBA and strategic management courses at UT Arlington – noted that as she and Quick conducted research on potentially dangerous employees, they continued to notice similar evolving dysfunctional behavior patterns in people who indulged in sexual harassment.

“Acting out events are not accidents,” she said.

But, the two researchers say, getting the workplace to understand the harassment problem isn’t an easy task. They found that more than 70 percent of women say they’ve experienced some level of harassment on the job, and that’s a conservative estimate since many incidents go unreported.

This happens, McFadyen says, because it’s difficult to understand the legal definition of sexual harassment and because women and men differ dramatically in their interpretation of what constitutes harassment.

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And it keeps occurring despite the fact that more than seven out of every 10 companies now provide training to prevent or resolve harassment issues, often with limited effectiveness.

Much of the anti-harassment training that does occur in the workplace, McFadyen says, simply doesn’t provide benefits. In particular, she has collected significant data evidence to conclude that the most popular way of providing such training – computer-generated videos that typically illustrate inappropriate behavior – just aren’t effective.

All that said, while McFadyen and Quick acknowledge there is no easy solution, there are benefits to developing a model that focuses on high-risk employees, who their research indicates typically tend to be few in number, 1 percent to 3 percent.

Quick says that while it is very difficult to detect potential sexual harassers in the hiring process, it is possible – with the appropriate psychological screening – to identify and work with them before they evolve into a threat to others.

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The strategy the two professors developed involved adopting a three-stage life-history prevention surveillance model commonly used to prevent public health epidemics – an old idea with a new application for preventing sexual harassment.

Here’s the outline for a typical evolution of sexual harassment.

Stage 1: Risk factors such as high male-to-female ratio, male-dominated power positions and a lack of unmonitored cultural restraints.

Stage 2: Language with sexual overtones, off-color stores, inappropriate jokes and a general environment aimed at keeping women “in their place.”

Stage 3: Sexual assaults occur, often with ruinous, career-killing and costly consequences.

“They absolutely must not be ignored or pushed to the side,” McFadyen and Quick concur.

Much as a public health strategy would do, McFadyen and Quick’s multi-faceted strategy provides interventions for each of the three stages, though clearly the best place for intervention is the first stage, which begins with clear policies and systematic screening along with education and emphasis on the first line of supervision.

Much as would occur with a public health outbreak, harassment strategies incorporate intercession, containment, caregiving, forgiveness and organizational resilience.

“Sexual aggressors destroy lives, leaving long legacies of suffering,” Quick emphasizes in the HBR article. “Yet sexual harassment in the workplace is an occupational health problem that does not occur in isolation. Rather, it’s generally a result of cumulative events and thus predictable and preventable. Workplace sexual harassment is no accident, and with proper surveillance and prevention mechanisms, it may be eliminated altogether.”

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O.K. Carter is a former editor and publisher of the Arlington Citizen-Journal and was also Arlington publisher and columnist for the Star-Telegram and founding editor of Arlington Today Magazine. He’s the author of the definitive book on Arlington’s colorful history, Caddos, Cotton and Cowboys: Essays on Arlington.