Study: Peers Likeliest Office Sex Harassers


Lecherous bosses are the stereotypical villains in popular perceptions of sexual harassment, but a new study of large U.S. corporations finds that co-workers are the most frequent perpetrators in reported cases.

The study, conducted by the New York-based American Management Assn. for the Washington Post, found that of 1,366 sexual harassment complaints brought to the attention of officials at a sampling of U.S. companies, about half the cases involved the victims’ peers or co-workers. In contrast, only about 26% involved the victims’ direct supervisors.

“Companies are looking up and down when they should be looking horizontally,” said Eric Rolfe Greenberg, director of research at the management association, which represents the nation’s major employers. “It might not be the person above you or below you on the organizational chart, but the person next to you on the assembly line or in the next cubicle.”

Those findings did not surprise Mary Ellen Capek, executive director of the National Council for Research on Women, who said co-worker harassment poses troublesome problems for companies because it is easier to intervene with a single supervisor than to change the “culture of the organization” that allows co-worker harassment.


But Ellen Bravo, national director of the organization 9to5, which operates a sexual harassment telephone hotline, said she believes that the association’s numbers mask the reality that victims are more likely to report co-workers than supervisors because they fear losing their jobs if they speak up about the boss. “Of the people who call us, at least half, if not more, say it is their supervisor” causing the problem, Bravo said.

The AMA survey found that sexual harassment situations are affecting a growing number of U.S. companies. In November 1991, following the Senate hearings into sexual harassment allegations made by Anita Faye Hill against then-Supreme Court justice nominee Clarence Thomas, about 52% of companies said they had experienced at least one sexual harassment report. The new survey, completed last week, found that number has now grown to 73% of companies responding.

The AMA surveyed its 1,746 members by fax last week, and got responses by fax from 456 companies. About 30% of those responding are in the Midwest and 26% are in the Northeast.