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How Organizational Policies Influence Bystander Likelihood of Reporting Moderate and Severe Sexual Harassment at Work


Little is known about the causal effect of sexual harassment policies on sexual harassment outcomes at work. Based on schema theories of social cognition, organizational policies related to sexual harassment should have a greater impact on responses to moderate, versus severe, forms of sexual harassment. In Study 1, 219 undergraduate students were shown a fictitious company website describing one of three company policies on sexual harassment (a zero-tolerance policy, a standard harassment policy, or no policy), and were then assigned to read about a moderate or severe instance of sexual harassment they ostensibly observed at the organization. Results indicated participants in the zero-tolerance policy condition were more likely to intend to formally report the harassment to their organization than those in the other conditions. This effect was especially strong for the moderate, or more ambiguous, sexual harassment scenario. Study 2 replicated and extended Study 1 using 101 Human Resources professionals and actual policy statements from an organization. Results again indicated that a zero-tolerance policy leads to the highest estimates of bystander reporting, especially for instances of moderate sexual harassment. Implications for practice include a caution against using minimal or compulsory harassment policies in place of salient zero-tolerance policies.

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  1. The pretest data for Study 1 is available upon request from the first author.


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Special thanks to Dr. Lilia Cortina for her helpful and encouraging comments on an earlier version of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Ryan K. Jacobson.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Ryan Jacobson declares that he has no conflict of interest. Asia Eaton declares that she has no conflict of interest.

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Jacobson, R.K., Eaton, A.A. How Organizational Policies Influence Bystander Likelihood of Reporting Moderate and Severe Sexual Harassment at Work. Employ Respons Rights J 30, 37–62 (2018).

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  • Organizational policies
  • Sexual harassment policies
  • Sexual harassment reporting
  • Coworker sexual harassment
  • Bystander reporting