Sexual harassment: a big issue for small and medium sized enterprises?

Angela M. Dionisi and Julian Barling

Most organizational research continues to focus almost exclusively on large firms (Cooper and Otley, 1998; Wilkinson, 1999), and perhaps we should not be surprised. After all, large corporations are the subject of much media interest, and attract more attention from legislation, lobbyists and labor than do small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). In addition, organizational scientists do not necessarily research the aspects most relevant to a vibrant economy and healthy employees (O’Leary and Almond, 2009). While we of course do not deny the need for comprehensive information on large organizations, the neglect of SMEs in the organizational sciences leaves a sizable and consequential gap in our knowledge. Much remains unknown when it comes to the companies that employ the majority of working individuals in the United States (Headd, 2000) and Canada (Wong, 2009), their working experiences, and associated well-being.

Recognizing that the unique nature of SMEs and the environments in which they function may limit the generalizability of empirical findings derived from larger firms, some organizational scholars have begun to focus specifically on SMEs (e.g. Bacon and Hoque, 2005; Deshpande and Golhar, 1994; Heneman et al., 2000; Katz et al. 2000; Wilkinson, 1999). Despite this new focus, we still know very little about issues that affect the health and well-being of employees and managers in these organizations, especially when it comes to matters of aggression and victimization. This gap in knowledge becomes even less acceptable when we realize that employee health and well-being in large organizations has been extensively researched, as is evident from the attention given to this issue in specialist academic journals (e.g. the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology and Work and Stress), handbooks on work stress (Barling et al., 2005) and workplace violence (Kelloway et al., 2006), and occupational health psychology (Quick and Tetrick, 2010).

Recognizing this gap in knowledge, our goal in this chapter is to expand our understanding of one threat to employee well-being in SMEs, namely sexual harassment. Previous research in larger organizations has revealed much about the prevalence of this problem, its antecedents, and the significant costs it produces for employees and organizations alike (for a review, see Cortina and Berdahl, 2008). Given the substantial lessons learned from this literature, we are now well placed to investigate the prevalence of sexual harassment within SMEs, identify risk factors, and consider how this form of workplace aggression might be reduced and prevented within these unique organizational environments. To this end, we first briefly review what is currently known about sexual harassment in general. Thereafter, we focus on sexual harassment in SMEs, first outlining the limited literature that has been produced to date on this topic, followed by a discussion of several SME characteristics that we believe may impact the prevalence and effects of sexual harassment in these firms. More specifically, we emphasize the role of the workplace climate for sexual harassment in SMEs, and factors associated with the workforce composition of these organizations. While we will suggest that in many cases these variables leave SMEs more vulnerable to the problem of sexual harassment, we also draw attention to situations where the nature of SMEs may actually thwart the occurrence, and minimize the effects of this type of victimization. Finally, ideas for research will be suggested, and practical recommendations will be offered for practitioners looking to reduce or prevent sexual harassment from occurring in their SMEs.

The time has come for sexual harassment scholars to focus their attention on SMEs, take what has been learned from larger organizations, and use it to help produce new knowledge pertinent to the unique conditions and challenges faced by SMEs. In so doing, we offer ideas and suggestions that will directly enhance the safety and well-being of SME employees, and indirectly facilitate the survival and growth of these organizations.

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