Why sexual harassment by customers goes unreported

8 March 2016

New research from the University of Sydney Business School has investigated customer perpetrated sexual harassment and examined the coping mechanisms used by young waitresses, shop assistants and bartenders. 

New research from the University of Sydney Business School has investigated the reasons behind the concerning trend of unreported cases of sexual harassment by customers in the service sector. 

The findings confirm that social norms such as the belief that “it’s an employee’s job to be friendly” and “the customer is always right”, contribute to the lack of official reporting of customer perpetrated sexual harassment.

Published in the Gender, Work & Organisation, the study followed the experiences of 18 to 25-year-old waitresses, shop assistants, bartenders and cashiers, and is the first to investigate the nature and frequency of customer perpetrated sexual harassment in the service sector.

Associate Professor Rae Cooper from the University of Sydney Business School, who co-authored the study, said the frequency of customer perpetrated sexual harassment was alarming.

“Our research found that employees feel incredibly restricted in their ability to deal with sexual harassment perpetrated by customers,” she said.

In one particular case study, the researchers examined the experience of a casually employed female working in an inner-city pub with an older male regular patron.

“The friendly attitude that staff are expected to maintain in the workplace was too often misinterpreted by customers to be genuine personal interest,” Associate Professor Cooper said.

“Setting the boundaries between work responsibilities and personal feelings makes it extremely difficult for employees to take a strong stance against sexual harassment.

“The ‘customer is always right’ philosophy resulted in a power imbalance between the customer and the employee which meant many of our interviewees questioned whether sexual propositions were serious enough to make a formal complaint.”

Co-author of the study, Laura Good, said staff were more likely to internalise their frustration rather than make a formal complaint to address the harassment.

“There is a dangerous trend in responses to sexual harassment where the onus is placed on the employee rather than on employers, managers and the retail and hospitality industries as a whole,” Good said.

“When employees did formally report incidents of sexual harassment, managers were extremely reluctant to confront the customer directly.”

Despite amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act in 2011 which made customer perpetrated sexual harassment unlawful, the coping mechanisms used by interviewees in the study indicate more reform is needed, the researchers said.

“There is only one way in which the issue of customer perpetrated sexual harassment can be dealt with effectively, and that is systemic reforms,” Associate Professor Cooper said.

“We need to stop placing all of the responsibility on the individual employee to address sexual harassment by customers. It is only through collection actions of policymakers, employers and unions that this concerning trend can be stopped.”  

Dr Rae Cooper is an Associate Professor in the University of Sydney Business School's Discipline of Work and Organisational Studies. Laura Good is an honours graduated of the University of Sydney Business School.

Read their opinion article via the Sydney Morning Herald

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