Sexual Harassment in the Hospitality Industry


Sexual harassment in the workplace is one of the major issues that the employees all over the world have to place. Due to the perceived negative implications of this issue, government and advocacy groups have tried to engage in measures to address sexual harassment. In the US, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has taken steps to mitigate incidents of harassment in all industries by providing standards that are to be adhered to and empowering employees to sue whenever they face harassment in the workplace. Over the last decade, there has been an increase in education and awareness on the issue of sexual harassment leading to enlightened and therefore empowered employees.

These efforts have improved the conditions for most workers, although the issue continues to affect some workplace environments. While sexual harassment is a concern for the entire society, research suggests that employees in the hospitality industry are more vulnerable to this phenomenon (Pina, Gannon, & Saunders, 2010). This paper will set out to discuss why sexual harassment is so prevalent in the hospitality industry. It will then highlight the negative consequences of harassment and suggest ways in which the human resources department of the company can prevent these incidents.

Sexual Harassment: A definition

There is a significant difficulty in defining sexual harassment because people have different perceptions of what constitutes this act. These perceptions are informed by many factors, including the working culture of various workplaces and the societal norms. However, an acceptable definition offered by the European Commission Code of Practice defines sexual harassment in the work environment as “an unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, or other conduct based on sex affecting the dignity of women and men at work such as unwelcome physical, verbal or nonverbal conduct” (Oliveira & Vitor, 2013, p.181). There is a wide range of potential harassers in the work setting and they include managers, supervisors, coworkers, and customers.

Sexual Harassment and the Hospitality Industry

While sexual harassment occurs in various industries, there has been a disproportionate number of hospitality industry staff complaining about it. A report by the Human Rights Commission in 2007 indicated that 20% of all its sexual harassment complaints came from the hospitality industry (Brown, 2010). This is a significant figure considering the fact that this industry only makes up 5% of the national workforce. Corroborating this report is the prevalence of harassment lawsuits filed against the hospitality industry by employees. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission observes, “More charges alleging sexual harassment and discrimination are filed against the restaurant industry than against all other industries put together (Albano & Brain, 2009, p. 5).

Sexual abuse in the hospitality industry is carried out against both men and women. A study by Theocharous and Philaretou (2009) on sexual harassment in the hospitality industry in the Republic of Cyprus reveals that almost one in three victims of sexual harassment were males. Such findings show that while women are the major victims, men working in the hospitality industry also suffer from these incidents. This suggests that harassment is ubiquitous in the industry and employees are not safe.

Why Sexual Harassment is Prevalent in the Hospitality Industry

Job Expectations

The hospitality industry seeks to provide quality services that meet the needs of the customers. By its very definition, the term “hospitality” has a connotation of being welcoming and kind to guests. Many hospitality establishments therefore have a culture of providing the best customer service and ensuring that customer needs are met. The idea is that the customer’s needs should be properly satisfied in order to create a positive view of the company and encourage future returns. As such, the hospitality professionals are constantly exhorted to maintain a consistently positive attitude to customers.

They have to be courteous and friendly, even to customers who act inappropriately or make unwelcome sexual comments. This situation is sometimes abused by customers who take advantage of the fact that hospitality employees lack the power to control their working environment.

Job Status

The job status of some of the professionals in the hospitality industry also makes them susceptible to sexual harassment. Most of the employees working in the lower levels are young, from poor socioeconomic backgrounds, and do not have high formal education. For example, many people who work in the housekeeping department, a department that is integral in hotel management, are often from poor backgrounds. The low status of the workers leads to a feeling of weakness and the employee is intimidated, especially when dealing with individuals in authority. In addition to this, these workers are unlikely to report when they are harassed since this might have a negative effect on their job security. Oliveira and Vitor (2013) state that most of these workers are less likely to file complaints that may jeopardize their jobs. This increases the chances of being harassed.

Business Reputation

Managers contribute to perpetuating sexual harassment in the hospitality industry by failing to take action when complaints are issued by employees. Oliveira and Vitor (2013) document that hotel management is often eager to please wealthy clients and in some cases, this means ignoring complaints of sexual harassment from their staffers. Due to the negative implications that sexual harassment charges can have on the business, management might try to dismiss any allegations. Oliveira and Vitor (2013) reveal that in some cases, management’s reaction to charges of sexual harassment has been to discharge it as the personal inclinations of individual people. This reaction lays blame on the victim of the harassment and creates precedence for future harassment in the workplace. When management ignores or tolerates sexual harassment in their company, employees develop a feeling of learned helplessness.

Power Imbalance

Some hospitality companies serve clients who come from a significantly higher economic status than the employees of the company do. This is especially the case in tourism where there is a stark difference of status and economic means between the clients and the hospitality employees (Oliveira & Vitor, 2013). The implicit power imbalance in the relationship between clients and staff leads to higher probability of sexual harassment incidents taking place.

The prevalence of women in lower level occupations in the hospitality industry also increases the prevalence of sexual harassment cases. Unlike in other industries where there is a gender balance or men dominate the workplace, the service workplace is largely populated by women. The men working in the hospitality industry often have higher positions than women do. Research indicates that men hold most of the management positions in the hospitality industry while women are overrepresented in the lower levels. Men are therefore able to use their position of authority over women to gain sexual favors.

Sexualization of Women

In the hospitality industry, the appearance of employees, especially women is of great importance. The hospitality industry often requires employees to act or dress sexually for the pleasure of customers. Many companies enforce strict dress and grooming codes that require the employees to appear attractive (Alagappar et al., 2011). Employees are encouraged to appear attractive and in some cases alluring to the clients. Such behavior is encouraged since it improves business by causing customers to return. This culture results in a high occurrence of objectification of staff by the clients. By being obliged to look attractive, employees bring attention to themselves and they cause observers to view them as sexual beings. Sexual harassment is therefore more likely to occur in this environment than in would in an environment where “attractiveness” is not at the core of the employee dress code.

Hierarchical Structure

The hierarchical structure adopted by the hospitality industry makes lower level employees susceptible to harassment. In this industry, there is a rigid structure where subordinates are required to report to supervisors. Supervisors possess significant power since they perform regular evaluations of their subordinates. This power structure makes it easy for the managers to take advantage of the lower level employees. Albano and Brain (2009) note that managers might require sexual favors from the employees for a promotion or in order to give a favorable job evaluation.

Social Interaction

The level of interaction among hospitality industry employees with co-workers, managers, and customers makes them vulnerable to being sexually harassed. Workers in this industry work long and irregular hours, during which they interact with their colleagues and clients. This decreases the amount of time spend with other people. Albano and Brain (2009) reveal that the high level of interaction exposes the employee to harassment especially from their colleagues. Low-level employees with greater experience often harass the new employees. The greater interaction with customers also raises the probability of harassment occurring. Kim (2009) documents that hospitality industry employees are likely to encounter intoxicated customers who might engage in inappropriate sexual behavior.

Impact of Sexual Harassment

Incidents of sexual harassment in the hospitality industry can lead to a number of significant problems. The first detrimental impact of sexual harassment is that it has a negative impact on the mental health of the victim. Studies show that victims of sexual harassment are predisposed to suffering from a host of psychological and physiological symptoms such as stress, anxiety, fear and depression (Ineson, Yap, & Whiting, 2013). The self esteem of the victim is also reduced and this might lead to negative effects since self-esteem tends to have an effect on a person’s daily interpersonal interactions and is closely associated with his/her well being, self-efficacy and memory capabilities.

Harassment leads to low morale from the victimized employee. The employee is likely to develop feelings of fear and resentment towards the employers if the issue was reported and no action was taken (Alagappar et al., 2011). This resentment leads to lower work productivity as the worker is unwilling to cooperate with the management and achieve the company’s objectives. Theocharous and Philaretou (2009) report that following incidents of sexual harassment, victims tend to display a marked decrease in their work output.

Companies in the hospitality industry are likely to suffer from high employee turnover rates due to harassment. Incidents of sexual harassment lead to poor work environments where the employees do not feel safe. This leads to discomfort and most workers are likely to seek for employment elsewhere. Choi and Youngsoo (2009) reveal that the exceptionally high turnover of staff in the hospitality industry is a direct consequence of issues of a sexual nature. One study reported that up to 20% of companies in the hospitality industry identified harassment as one of the reasons for workers quitting their job (Albano & Brain, 2009). High turnover rates reduce the profitability of the company since hiring new staff is an expensive activity.

Sexual harassment may be financially damaging to the company, especially when the matter is exposed to the public. In some cases, employees take action against their employers and sue the company. These lawsuits are often covered by the press leading to bad publicity for the company. Jennings (2009) notes that allegations of sexual harassment harm the image of a company and lead to reduced profitability due to loss of customers. The company is forced to engage in expensive public relations efforts to restore its good image. In addition to this, companies might be forced to pay significant amounts of money in settlement when they are found liable for sexual harassment against the employees. Jennings (2009) reveals that huge monetary awards are given to employees who successfully sue their companies for sexual harassment.

The Role of HR

A successful hospitality company has to maintain good relations between its employees and its customers. Sexual harassment threatens to destroy the existence of these good working relations leading to problems for the company (Pina et al., 2010). As has been noted, sexual harassment has negative repercussions for both the employee and the company. It would therefore be beneficial for a company in the hospitality industry to prevent harassment. The Human Resource (HR) department is best placed to engage in activities that can prevent sexual harassment from taking place in the company.

The HR department should come up with an articulate sexual harassment policy that should be available for all employees. A useful policy is one that informs employees of appropriate and inappropriate action. The policy should specify what constitutes sexual harassment in clear terms and highlight what actions are unacceptable. The policy should provide the name of the person to be contacted in case there is an incident to report.

Albano and Brain (2009) state that there should be a number of managers who reports of incidents can be made to since the employee would not be able to act if there is only one manager and he/she happens to be the harasser in the given case. The HR should take action whenever there is a report of sexual harassment. A thorough investigation should be undertaken in response to any charges made and action taken to stop inappropriate behavior when it occurs. Jennings (2009) notes that having a policy is not enough; action has to be taken to mitigate the situation.

The HR office should invest in sexual harassment training for the employees. Such training would provide the staff with the necessary information about the issue making them more empowered. Empowered employees are less likely to put up with sexual harassment or allow their coworkers, managers, or customers to treat them in an abusive manner. Choi and Youngsoo (2009) declare that managers should also be trained regularly on how to avoid sexual harassment and how to react when incidents are reported. Proper training to managers makes it possible for employees to enjoy a safe working environment.

HR can implement some solutions to preventing sexual harassment from occurring in the first place. One proactive measure is ensuring constant surveillance in hallways (Oliveira & Vitor, 2013). This will reduce the risk that housekeeping staff face when working at odd hours. By installing video cameras, the isolation that increases the risk of sexual harassment will be reduced. The sexualization of women employees in the hospitality industry has contributed to the prevalence of sexual harassment in the industry. HR can help reduce harassment by avoiding requiring employees to adopt sexualized roles.

In spite of the best efforts by the HR department, it might not be possible to stop all incidents of sexual harassment. When an employee is harassed, there should be a strong support system to help in the recovery process. Most companies in the hospitality industry do not have a support system and employees are forced to cope with problems on their own (Ineson et al., 2013). The HR should ensure that the employees have access to support systems to ensure recovery from the incident. Fellow workers should be allowed to offer social support to their colleagues.


This paper set out to discuss why sexual harassment is so prevalent in the hospitality industry and highlight its impacts. It began by providing a definition of sexual harassment and stating why this issue is important in the hospitality industry. It then noted that while sexual harassment is a concern for workers in all occupations, hospitality employees are more vulnerable than other professionals are. This vulnerability stems from the odd working hours, the importance of appearance, and the presence of a large number of women at lower levels.

The obligation by companies to please clients combined with the power difference between low-level employees and management and between employees and clients increases the frequency of harassment. The paper has noted that sexual harassment leads to significant negative impacts for both the employee and the hospitality establishment. It is therefore pragmatic to address this issue and avoid its consequences. HR can play a huge role in protecting employees from sexual harassment and ensuring that action is taken in case of any incident. By addressing the issue of sexual harassment, the hospitality industry can continue to gain profits from providing services to the community while ensuring the safety and well-being of its employees.


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