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Manufacturing Operations: Sexual Harassment, Morality, and Frontline Employees.


The popular literature from the past 30 years is replete with stories of sexual harassment and court cases (for example, Tuttle, 1990; Anderson, 1993; McCoy, 2017, Scheiber & Creswell, 2017). Lately, the "#MeToo" slogan has sparked an anti-sexual harassment movement. Interestingly, the phrase was coined by Tarana Burkey in 2006 to support mainly women of color who were survivors of sexual assault (Langone, 2018). However, when actress Ashley Judd accused media mogul Harvey Weinstein in October 2017, the deluge of the #MeToo social media campaign started devouring mainly high profile media personalities and politicians in the USA. The movements "#MeToo" and "#Timesup"--that was started on January 1, 2018--have created an awareness about the high prevalence of sexual harassment and assaults across a variety of industries. However, there is very limited discussion about sexual harassment that has existed in somewhat labor-intensive, male-dominated industries involving low-skilled labor force. This paper attempts to bring this issue to the fore.

The paper first presents a brief discussion of sex-based discrimination and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Next, a brief literature review is presented on leadership, ethics, and sexual harassment. Following which a trend analysis of sexual harassment data is presented. Thereafter, a discussion of sexual harassment in labor-intensive industries and related operations management issues is presented. The last section of the paper presents the conclusion and future research potentials.


Title VII of 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on sex, race, color, national origin, and religion. Sexual harassment, considered a form of sexual discrimination, falls under the purview of Title VII ( Even though the Civil Rights act was passed in 1964, it was not until 1980 when Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) first stated that sexual harassment is sex discrimination covered under the Civil Rights Act and issued guidelines for "establishing criteria for determining when unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment" ( Further, EEOC defined "the circumstances under which an employer may be held liable suggesting affirmative steps an employer should take to prevent sexual harassment" ( Finally, in 1986, in a landmark decision on the case of Meritor Savings Bank vs. Vinson, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that sexual harassment is illegal under the 1964 Civil Rights Act (Taylor, 1986). Taylor summarized the court decision by stating that severe and pervasive sexual harassment creates a hostile workplace, even when "the unwelcome sexual demands are not linked to concrete employment benefits."

It is important to note that sexual harassment is not just limited to an egregious demand for sex for continued employment but can begin with joking around in bad taste (Tuttle, 1990). EEOC's webpage describes sexual harassment as: "Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment." Sexual harassment, as recognized by the courts under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, can include two types: 1) quid pro quo, where sexual favors are sought in exchange for benefits or avoidance of detriments, and 2) hostile work environment, where sexual harassment is severe and widespread, creating a threatening work environment ( Although most of the allegations are made by women against men, the reverse situations also exist. Just recently, Dr. Nimrod Reitman accused his female doctoral advisor, Dr. Avital Ronell, of the Title IX violation and New York University's internal investigation found the world-famous professor responsible for sexual harassment (Greenberg, 2018). Another recent case is the news of the Italian actress Asia Argento being accused of sexually harassing Jimmy Bennett--an actor 20-years her junior.

Literature Review: Leadership, Ethics, and Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment continues to be an ethical problem in many organizations, along with sexual discrimination and unequal opportunities, which creates a hostile working environment, especially for women (Crain & Heischmidt, 1995). Furthermore, when the moral intensity of the abuse is minimized, it ends up significantly costing employees and employers because of the physical and psychological trauma experienced by individuals who are targets of sexual harassment (O'Leary-Kelly et al., 2001).This takes us to the study of ethics in leadership, which is so full of contradictions and confusion that the more we learn the less we are sure of what we know about ethics related to leadership, especially in business management. Ethical relativism, where society members collectively define what is acceptable/unacceptable, argues that morality is relative to the norms of one's culture. This is perhaps because humans across time and space vary with respect to what they value, what they consider right or wrong, good or bad in any given situation. Therefore, the morals and values that guide human decision making as individuals and in groups have become increasingly challenging and divisive because of conflicting values and greater stress on accountability faced by leaders today in both non-profit public organizations and for-profit organizations (Van Wart, 2013). Just as Trethewey and Goodall (2007) state that by tracing the evolution of ethical principles through history, probably, we can get a better understanding of ethical issues related to leadership over time.

In the Western world, according to Bass and Steidlmeier (1999), ethics as a scholarly pursuit began with Socrates and Plato in ancient Greece, and in the Far East by Confucius. Where Plato talked about the "philosopher king," Confucius' minister of state was the "moral sage," and, for Socrates, a moral person did not put money or anything else before virtue. Thus, these philosophers of the past imparted to us the first lessons as to how a moral person can become a transforming person. With their insistence on personal righteousness and social justice, they helped transform others with their fearlessness and commitment to virtue (Bass & Steidlmeier, 1999).

According to Northouse (2013), the word ethics comes from the Greek word, ethos, which means character, conduct, and customs. Therefore, ethics is concerned with values and behaviors that individuals and society consider desirable and appropriate. In leadership, ethics focuses on the character of leaders and what they do in terms of their actions and behaviors (Northouse, 2013). Historically, Bass and Steidlmeier (1999) explain that initially, in the Western world, moral heritage was based on faith. However, during the age of the Renaissance, inspired by reason and science, it soon gave way to social ethics based on procedural justice, to insure individual liberty, utility, and justice for all. However, with the coming of the industrial revolution, morality started being very individualistic, as expounded by libertarians such as Ayn Rand in the 1960s and Robert Nozick in the 1970s, with leaders showing their primary focus and responsibility towards their own selves and those they were related to. Libertarians looked upon the blind following of goals that were set by another as moral evil. Therefore, according to their ethical principles, leaders and followers began rationally pursuing their self-interests (Bass & Steidlmeier, 1999). Thereafter, morality was based on ethical egoism, which is closely related to transactional leadership, where a company and its employees' goal is to make maximum profit for themselves (Northouse, 2013).

The above trend obviously led to conflicts related to clashing values and diversity of motivations among leaders and followers (Bass & Steidlmeier, 1999), as seen in organizations within and outside various nations across the globe. However, as opposed to transactional charismatic leaders, Burns (2003), an expert in leadership, sees transformational leaders as encouraging their followers with a new sense of meaning in their work, and a new sense of worth related to their work. They empower their followers in a participatory and democratic manner. According to Burns, a good leader is seen as an ethical leader who practices transforming values, such as order, liberty, equality, justice, and pursuit of happiness.

Brown and Mitchell (2010) further explain how the research on the "darkside" of leadership and destructive organizational behavior has now begun focusing on unethical leadership. According to these scholars, leaders are responsible for setting the ethical tone of their organizations. Leaders guide and instill ethical principles in their followers through their examples and by reward and punishment. Thus, the research on the "darkside" of leadership attempts to understand why members of an organization, especially supervisors and leaders, engage in destructive behaviors, which result in harming the organization, its members, and its norms (Brown & Mitchell, 2010). Brown and Mitchell (2010) elucidate that unethical leader behavior encompasses illegal acts that are morally inappropriate for the society at large. Such unethical behavior can also be abusive, tyrannical, oppressive, manipulative, and sexually abusive/discriminatory. In addition, some leaders may even encourage unethical behavior to achieve organizational goals by condoning such behavior in the followers, even if they are not directly involved in such actions. The outcome of such unethical leadership may lead to ineffectiveness of an organization, causing negative attitudes among employees, such as absenteeism, higher health costs, loss in productivity, and expensive law suits. Therefore, unethical leadership causes employee victimization, marginalizes their self-resources, and leads to deviant behavior, including sexual exploitation. Brown and Mitchell (2010) further explore the reasons for unethical leadership, which they perceive to be a reaction to mistreatment by an organization leading to strained responses, feelings of powerlessness, depression, and increased rationalized aggression, including sexual discrimination towards their subordinates.

Therefore, in a world that seems to have lost its moral compass, stakeholders' trust in leadership and organizations is declining (Caldwell et al., 2012). Hence, organizations need to raise their ethical standards to meet the expectations of cynical employees and the society at large. Furthermore, empirical research supports that leaders who are virtuous in their actions, and who care for the welfare of their employees, improve the quality and profitability of their organization; have lower employee turnover; and better customer satisfaction (Caldwell et al., 2012).

Ethical leadership, according to Van Wart (2013), also endeavors to uphold ethical principles of integrity; build and keep trust; focus on the positive with passion and energy; and provide service to others through a sense of duty. Palanski and Yammarino (2009) explore the role of integrity further, which is used as a normative descriptor in management literature. Their study focuses on providing a theoretical base for integrity in leadership. They define integrity to mean consistency between word and actions, which they analyze at the individual, group, and organizational levels. Their study shows how integrity can affect outcomes related to trust, satisfaction, and improved performance at all three levels (Palanski & Yammarino, 2009).

As Bass and Steidlmeier (1999) rightly state, in spite of the fact that humans will not always agree on ethical values in terms of human rights and social utility, equity and efficiency, leaders need to show the Socratic commitment to the process of constantly questioning and searching for moral excellence. Today's organizations linked with social networks are interdependent and culturally diverse. They can function well under good leadership that is also morally sound to have a positive effect on the organizations' members and society at large (Aronson, 2001). Thus, sexual harassment can have no place in the workplace nor in society at large.


EEOC's website has some encouraging data from 1997 to 2017. Unfortunately, the data from 1997 to 2011 combine all the "alleged sex-based discrimination" charges received by EEOC as well as state and local Fair Employment Practices Agencies (FEPAs). However, another link on the EEOC website provides data strictly from EEOC from 2010 to 2017, which do not include data from FEPAs. Hence, we cannot combine the two sets of data for a historical analysis. However, one thing is very obvious: the filing of alleged sex-based discrimination is declining over the last twenty years (figure 1 and figure 2).

FIGURE-3 to FIGURE-5 provide some insight into the resolution of sex-based allegations. Overall, the meritorious resolutions--defined as "charges with outcomes favorable to charging parties and/or charges with meritorious allegations, including 'negotiated settlements, withdrawals with benefits, successful conciliations, and unsuccessful conciliations'" --remain somewhat constant around the 20-year average of 27% (figure 3). "No reasonable cause" resolutions show an increasing trend over the same period (figure 4). However, administrative closures show a decreasing trend over the 20 year period, from a high of 40% to 21% (figure 5). "Administrative closure," per EEOC, is "charge closed for administrative reasons, which include: failure to locate charging party, charging party failed to respond to EEOC communications, charging party refused to accept full relief, closed due to the outcome of related litigation which establishes a precedent that makes further processing of the charge futile, charging party requests withdrawal of a charge without receiving benefits or having resolved the issue, no statutory jurisdiction."

In terms of handling of sexual harassment by the leadership of an organization, according to Tuttle (1990), it is very important that proper provisions are made to encourage a victim to directly tell the harasser to stop the unwelcome behavior and report the case of sexual harassment to the employer through the proper reporting mechanism. The most critical issue from the employer's point of view is how the complaint is handled. Unfortunately, most employers in the past have not taken the issue seriously and the harasser has walked away with no consequences (Tuttle, 1990). A recent report for NPR by Noguchi (2017) concluded that only 3% to 6% of sexual harassment cases survive to reach the trial stage. This is because the "severe and pervasive" requirement sets the bar too high for most cases. Additionally, about 50% of the cases are settled out of court and about 37% dismissed (Noguchi, 2017).

The authors of this paper looked at the EEOC data on charges of "alleging sex-based harassment" from 2010 to 2017 that was available at the site and determined that out of a total of 57,718 resolutions reached by EEOC, a total of 34,091 (53.18%) cases were found to have no reasonable cause (figure 7) and another 14,354 (22.39%) cases were closed for administrative reasons (figure 8), which per EEOC includes reasons such as "failure to locate charging party," "charging party failed to respond to EEOC communications," "charging party refused to accept full relief," "charging party requests withdrawal of a charge," etc. The remaining 15,661 cases (24.43%) reached merit resolutions (figure 6), which EEOC defines as "charges with outcomes favorable to charging parties and/or charges with meritorious allegations. These include negotiated settlements, withdrawals with benefits, successful conciliations, and unsuccessful conciliations." That means, unfortunately, only about 1 out of 4 charges filed with EEOC resulted in a merit resolution.


One of the coauthors worked in a labor-intensive textile mill in India in the 1980s and has personally observed the existence of a work environment that can be clearly termed as sexually hostile. Some male workers would have posters or centerfolds from so-called men's magazine displayed on their tool cabinets. Those workers failed to understand that they were creating a hostile work environment for fellow female employees, granted that female employees would only have a rare need to be in the area to encounter those "offensive" pictures. The workers were not discouraged from such behaviors by most of their male supervisors; on the contrary, those workers were encouraged as some, mainly, young supervisors would pass an appreciative comment or point out that the worker had posted a new, nice picture, etc. However, occasionally some older supervisors would rebuke their workers for such behavior, but the workers could not really fathom that what they were doing was "wrong." Their justification would be that they were posting the pictures in their work area and it shouldn't be anyone's concern and if they were offensive, so be it.

When the coauthor immigrated to the southern USA, he was shocked to find out that the work environment was not much different in the manufacturing industries in the US. If anything, in the 1980s, it was much worse than what the author experienced in India. Male workers would not only have those offensive posters in their work areas but would pass lewd remarks on fellow female employees or even act out sexual motions, albeit from a distance. The coauthor has continued to maintain a connection with manufacturing businesses through factory visits, informal communication with practitioners, through professional societies, and conferences. Fortunately, fewer and fewer egregious anecdotes of such instances emerge in those conversations. Although there is no "direct" empirical evidence available to support the hunch, there may be a decline in the egregious, everyday nature of sexual harassment (hostile workplace) in manufacturing. Indirectly, however, figures 1 & 2 show that there is a long-term decline in the number of sexual harassment charges filed in all businesses, which includes manufacturing.

Perhaps there are a few factors that may be attributed to this perceived decline. There seems to be less and less personal/private space for workers in the manufacturing industries. Because of the changes in manufacturing technologies and work design, the need for each worker's private tool-cabinet is almost non-existent, which eliminates the indirect hostility, such as offensive posters in the workplace. However, mobile phones have created some issues where workers often share or pass-around inappropriate multi-media content on their mobile phones, thus creating uncomfortable situations for some workers.

Automation has also reduced the need for having a large number of employees in close vicinity with each other. Often, a manufacturing line can be handled by very few people. This may have also reduced the occurrences of sexual harassment. Another factor is that companies want workers to be skilled in multiple skills and the work assignments can be changed from day to day, depending on the need of the day. This discourages workers from conspiring and colluding to engage in sexual harassment. Also, over the years, the manufacturing sector has also shrunk in the USA as more and more businesses have moved their manufacturing to places such as China and Mexico, thus, the number of charges filed with EEOC may have decreased in the manufacturing sector but not necessarily in terms of charges per capita for the sector. Another important reason is that more and more organizations have started adopting and promoting sexual harassment policies. However, that by itself may not be sufficient as Dobbin and Kalev (2017) contend. They suggest that hiring and promoting more women to prominent positions will reduce sexual harassment. Fortunately, the hiring and promotion of women in prominent positions has been happening in the manufacturing sector lately. Case in point is General Motors' CEO Mary Barra who has moved up in the organization after first starting at the assembly line in the 1980s. Dobbin and Kelav (2017) suggest that "[i]n industries and workplaces where women are well represented in the core jobs, harassment is significantly less likely to occur."

Manufacturing, mining, police, security forces, firefighting, and technology industries are traditionally considered as male dominated workplaces where women tend to face sexual harassment. However, women being outnumbered is not the only reason for sexual harassment. Joselyn Frye (2017) analyzed the unpublished data from EEOC on sexual harassment charges by industry from 2005 to 2015 (figure 9). It should be pointed out that only 41,250 charges out of more than 85,000 were coded with industry information. Not surprisingly, the accommodation and food services industry, where a majority of workers are women in low-paying jobs, came up with the largest proportion of sexual harassment charges filed. Therefore, just hiring more women is not sufficient. They need to be in prominent, managerial positions.
FIGURE 9: Total Sexual Charges filed, by Industry, FY 2005 through 2015

                                                  Number of sexual
                                                  harassment charges

Accomodation and food services                    14.23%
Retail trade                                      13.44%
Manufacturing                                     11.72%
Health care and social assistance                 11.48%
Administrative and support and waste management    6.92%
and remediation
Public administration                              6.48%
Professional, scientific, and technical services   5.73%
Transportation and warehousing                     4.94%
Finance and insurance                              3.98%
Educational services                               3.98%
Other services (except public administration)      3.07%
Information                                        2.87%
Construction                                       2.52%
Wholesale trade                                    2.27%
Real estate rental and leasing                     1.95%
Arts, entertainment, and recreation                1.61%
Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting         0.83%
Management of companies and enterprises            0.65%
Utilities                                          0.63%
Mining                                             0.61%

Total Charges Filed: 41250


Note: Table made from bar graph.

At the second spot is the retail trade, which also tends to be very highly represented by women. Hence, there is no surprise as to why it occupies the second spot in the figure above. However, in the manufacturing sector, which is the primary focus of this paper, women represent a very small percentage of the workforce and yet the sector ranks in third place in the figure above. Frye (2107) suggests that manufacturing jobs "have long been male-dominated, women who enter the field may lack power or be seen as outsiders, thus making them targets for harassment."


Sexual harassment has been a major problem in business and society for a very long time. Although it is not always the women who suffer the humiliation--there are several prominent cases where men have been victims of sexual harassment--women bear the brunt in a very large majority of cases. There is a need for a business culture change that needs to promote an environment where all workers can work without any sexual or other intimidation. The manufacturing sector appears to be in need of significant improvement in the work environment.

Frye (2107) has categorized percentage of all charges filled by different categories. However, it will be interesting to compare the charges filed per capita employment in those sectors. We expect that some of the male-dominated sectors, such as manufacturing and mining, may turn out to be far worse than what they appear to be. We plan to do such an analysis in future research. We also hope to analyze the humongous EEOC database by sub-categories in manufacturing to see if there are differences among those categories. It will also be interesting to not just look at the charges filed by industry, but also to look at what were the resolutions or how the cases were dispensed with--administrative closure, no reasonable cause, or merit resolution. Such research would give more insight into sex-based discrimination that exists across all industries and help businesses take appropriate actions to improve their work environment to make their workers more safe and productive, which, in turn, would help enhance the businesses' competitiveness.


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Ramesh G. Soni, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Bina Soni, Indiana University of Pennsylvania
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Author:Soni, Ramesh G.; Soni, Bina
Publication:Competition Forum
Date:Jul 1, 2018
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