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Study suggests that insecurity motivates sexual harassment

Victims of workplace harassment in California might suspect that individuals engage in harassing behavior because they want to exert power. A new report from university researchers adds nuance to this explanation. Worries about inadequate job performance could motivate some people to harass their subordinates. According to the report, high-level executives are not the only ones prone to this behavior. Insecurity might drive lower-level supervisors to intimidate subordinates as well.

The researchers concluded after three studies that concerns about poor leadership could cause people to lash out. People with narcissistic personality traits could compensate for their feelings of incompetence and resulting insecurity by harassing people beneath them on the workplace hierarchy.

The report recommended that workplaces encourage a culture that recognizes the strengths and skills of workers. Insecurity might not take hold if people have more positive feelings about their performance. By contrast, workplaces create an environment more susceptible to abusive relationships when gossip runs rampant and management maintains psychological distance from rank-and-file employees. Sexual harassment training that prompts reflection about personal insecurities could help mitigate the problem as well.

Employers have a legal obligation to investigate complaints from employees about harassment, especially when it is based on sexual or racial discrimination. An employee who feels that a company failed to take a complaint seriously might wish to consult an attorney. An attorney may be able to examine evidence like employee evaluations, witness testimony, workplace correspondence and company policies to see if behavior crossed legal lines. After approaching an employer with documented evidence about potentially illegal conduct, an attorney might request a settlement that includes financial damages and reforms of workplace policies. If an employer continues to dismiss the person's claims, an attorney may advance the case to the courtroom and explain the situation to a jury.

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