Sexual harassment prevention

June 11, 2024 •

6 min reading

Sexual harassment prevention in hospitality: An integrative framewwork

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The hospitality and tourism industry significantly contributes to the global economy. In 2022, the direct contribution of travel and tourism to the global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was approximately USD 7.7 trillion, representing a 7.6% share of the global economy, marking an increase of 22% from 2021 and a recovery nearing pre-pandemic levels (World Travel & Tourism Council, 2023). Looking ahead, the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) forecasts that by 2033, the tourism sector will grow its GDP contribution to USD 15.5 trillion, representing 11.6% of the global economy.

As a people’s driven business, the world of hospitality and tourism is known for its commitment to customer centricity where customer service and satisfaction are key performance indicators. Paradoxically, or for that precise reason that the “customer is king”, the industry grapples with the pervasive issue of sexual harassment.



"Sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favor, verbal or physical conduct or gesture of a sexual nature, or any other behavior of a sexual nature that might reasonably be expected or be perceived to cause offence or humiliation to another, when such conduct interferes with work, is made a condition of employment or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”

United Nations for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, 2023

Prevalence of sexual harassment in the hospitality industry

While sexual harassment is an important issue in every industry, the hospitality sector is plagued by it (Gibson & Guskin, 2017). Sexual harassment is ranked among the most prevalent issues by both hospitality students (Yeung & Pine, 2003) and hospitality employees (Yeung, 2004). Kolmar (2023) shows that between 54 percent and 81 percent of women report experiencing some level of sexual harassment at work. Despite this prevalence, between 58 percent and 72 percent of victims abstain from reporting instances of workplace sexual harassment. Workers in hospitality and food services account for 14 percent of harassment charges. Specifically, women who work for tips as their primary source of income are twice as likely to experience sexual harassment, including from customers.


Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on workplace sexual harassment

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the nature and dynamics of workplace sexual harassment. With the shift to remote and flexible working environments, there has been an increase in online harassment (Strenio & Chowdhury, 2021). The lack of direct supervision and the potential for more one-on-one interactions online can contribute to this rise (Vitak, Chadha, Steiner, & Ashktorab, 2017). Additionally, social distancing and fewer people in physical workplaces mean fewer witnesses to challenge inappropriate behavior. Furthermore, the economic downturn and increased use of freelancers and contractors, who might be less familiar with a company's culture and thus more hesitant to report harassment due to fear of losing work, have also made staff more vulnerable to sexual harassment (Dahl & Knepper, 2021). Overall, while sexual harassment in the workplace is not a new issue, the disruption caused by the pandemic has created new risk factors and challenges that organizations must address to ensure safe working environments.

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Factors contributing to sexual harassment in hospitality

Factors that contribute to the prevalence of sexual harassment in the hospitality sector include the nature of customer interactions – characterized by proximity and personalized service – which might create an environment where inappropriate behavior may be ignored (Gilbert, Guerrier, & Guy, 1998; Ram, 2018). Additionally, the transient and often part-time nature of hospitality work can result in power imbalances, rendering employees more vulnerable to harassment (Poulston, 2008), as harassment is about abuse of power.


Consequences of sexual harassment

Negative consequences of sexual harassment prevail at all levels. At the individual level, victims might suffer emotional distress, anxiety, and a decline in mental health, extending beyond the workplace to impact personal relationships (Barling, Rogers, & Kelloway, 2001; Willness, Steel, & Lee, 2007). Sexual harassment has been identified as one of the most damaging barriers to career success and life satisfaction, for women (McLaughlin, Uggen, & Blackstone, 2017). Group-level consequences include the erosion of organizational culture, decreased morale, job satisfaction, and overall employee engagement (Fitzgerald, Drasgow, Hulin, Gelfand, & Magley, 1997). Organizational consequences include increased turnover and financial and legal ramifications, such as lawsuits and regulatory penalties (Fitzgerald, 1993). Despite the negative outcomes, sexual harassment has been poorly addressed. Evidence shows that sexual harassment goes unreported, incidents are not handled properly, or workers who report an incident experience retaliation (Eaton, 2004; Morganson & Major, 2014; Ram, 2018).


Developing a sexual harassment prevention framework in hospitality

Drawing from my fieldwork of designing and implementing a sexual harassment prevention initiative at EHL Hospitality Business School since the Fall of 2019, I developed a sexual harassment prevention conceptual framework embedded in a culture of care and based on four pillars – building awareness, training for anti-harassment skills, monitoring progression, and taking action – incorporating the triad roles of victim, bystander, and perpetrator that exist in an incident. Organizational context plays a pivotal role in increasing or decreasing sexual harassment. More specifically, corporate culture shapes employee perceptions of safety and willingness to report incidents of harassment (Cooper, 2000; Offermann & Malamut, 2002; Timmerman & Bajema, 2000). A culture of care ensures that victims are supported and encouraged to use established reporting procedures, confidential channels, and counseling services. In parallel, leadership shapes this culture and influences acceptable organizational behavioral norms (Gill,Fitzgerald, Bhutani, Mand, & Sharma, 2010; Taormina, 2008).

Building awareness

The first pillar in the framework is building awareness. This includes for example awareness campaigns underlining leadership and organizational commitment to fostering a culture of respect and intolerance towards harassment (Buchanan, Settles, Hall, & O’Connor, 2014). It also includes the articulation of clear sanctions for inappropriate behavior applied to internal and external stakeholders (staff and customers) which actively involves them in maintaining a respectful and harassment-free environment.

Training for anti-harassment skills

The second pillar is training for anti-harassment skills. This requires interactive and scenario-based training (e.g., interactions with customers) where individuals learn to recognize, address, and prevent harassment effectively (Campbell et al., 2013; Desplaces & Ogilvie, 2020) as a potential victim and bystander. Bystander involvement – individuals who actively support the victim, intervene in the situation, and report the incident on behalf of the victim – has shown to be critical for creating a collective responsibility for maintaining a safe workplace (Lee, Hanson, & Cheung, 2019; Liang & Park, 2022).

Monitoring for progression

The third pillar is monitoring for progression. This refers to assessing the impact of training and measuring the level of awareness (Harkin et al., 2016). When leadership endorses monitoring processes, it signals the organization's commitment to creating a harassment-free workplace (Astrauskaite et al., 2015).

Taking action

The fourth pillar is about taking action when required. The action phase relies on a swift and impartial response to reported incidents, emphasizing victim support mechanisms and perpetrator accountability.

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Creating a culture of care to address sexual harassment

This proposed model provides an integrated approach to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. By focusing on cultivating a culture of care supported by training programs, bystander intervention, victim support mechanisms, perpetrator accountability, and customer education, hospitality organizations can actively prevent and address instances of harassment. As workplaces continue to evolve, this holistic framework serves as a blueprint for creating an environment where people feel valued, protected, and empowered to contribute to a culture of respect and dignity.

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Associate Professor at EHL Hospitality Business School

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