Sexual crimes committed by non-profit workers may seem like a paradox. The question is, how can people who are deemed moral by society engage in vile behaviour? Jeroen Camps writes that the very prosocial nature of the work in many non-profit organisations might instigate sexual harassment through a process called moral licensing.
When the news hit the world in 2018 that workers of several well-known non-profit organisations were accused of committing sexual crimes against the very people they were expected to provide aid and protection for, the world seemed shocked. Paradoxically, people who – at first glance – are deemed moral by society through their charity work, ended up engaging in vile behaviour. Yet, how could such immoral behaviour occur in organisations that were basically founded for doing good? This problem underlines the need for a better understanding as to why individuals engage in sexual harassment, especially in the context of non-profit organisations.
In a detailed analysis, Imanol Nuñez and Andrea Ollo-López argued that non-profit organisations are particularly susceptible to sexual harassment because of the organisational dysfunctions they often face (such as underdeveloped Human Resource Management systems and a high staff turnover) as well as because they are particularly vulnerable to harassers (harassers might intentionally try to get employed by these organisations because they see the potential for harassment). While I found their article extremely insightful and well-developed – I would definitely recommend you read their original piece – I also believe that they missed a key element that helps us understand why sexual harassment might be a particular risk in such non-profit organisations: the work itself.
In my latest work I outlined how the prosocial nature of the work conducted at many non-profit organisations might actually function as an instigator of sexual harassment through a process called moral licensing. The idea behind moral licensing is that the performance of so-called good deeds (such as working on a pro-environmental cause or aiding war victims) does not lead to additional good deeds or moral behaviour, but increases the likelihood that someone will perform immoral deeds, such as sexual harassment.
Now why does this happen? Well, the underlying assumption is that each of us has an internal moral reference point – see it as a representation of your tendency to act morally. While this moral reference point guides our behaviour, it is obviously impossible to behave at the exact same level of morality at every single point in time. There will be instances where our behaviour falls a bit (or even a lot) below this moral reference point. However, there will also be instances where our behaviour clearly exceeds our average moral standard (such as when risking one’s life to save another person). Moral licensing can occur when we engage in behaviour that positively deviates from that reference point. As human beings we have a natural tendency to restore the balance and display behaviour that lets us return to that reference point. Simply put, when we perform moral behaviour that exceeds our internal moral standard (such as saving someone’s life) we are likely to grant ourselves a license to perform more immoral deeds afterwards, hence, moral licensing.
Why our minds work this way in different situations is still open for debate, but research currently points to two different explanations for how moral licensing works. A first reason (the moral credits approach) is that our mind (subconsciously) keeps stock of our moral credits through some kind of “moral bank account”. When we perform good deeds, we can bank some additional moral credits in our account and use these savings later to perform less moral – or even immoral – deeds. The second reason (the moral credentials approach) is that the performance of good deeds clouds our perceptions. We start to see ourselves in an overly positive manner and tend to interpret our own behaviour in a way that doesn’t threaten our moral self-regard or integrity. Overall, this means that sexual harassment can occur because workers believe that they have done so much good for others or society that committing sexual harassment does not outweigh all the good they have done (the moral credits approach) or because these workers’ overly positive moral self-regard causes them to see their sexual harassment as normal, consensual sexual behaviour (the moral credentials approach).
This brings us back to the nature of the work as a potential risk factor for moral licensing, and thereby sexual harassment. People derive part of their identity from the work they conduct. The virtuous or moral nature of the work that is conducted in non-profit organisations is thus likely to elevate the moral self-regard of its employees. And because their self-regard becomes elevated, they become more at risk of conducting immoral acts later on. Of course, this does not mean that every employee – or even most employees – will engage in sexual harassment. But for those who are prone to such immoral behaviour, conducting moral work on a regular basis might heighten the likelihood that they will engage in sexual harassment at some point in time.
But even if sexual harassment might be the result of moral licensing, why would colleagues fail to report and stop sexual harassment? Well, it turns out that observers are also susceptible to the moral licensing principles explained above. Our minds are inclined to see the world as a consistent, predictable place. When we work together with colleagues who perform moral deeds on a regular basis, we tend to see them in a positive light and are motivated to maintain this view. This means that we are less attentive to signals that deviate from our expectations (for instance, inappropriate sexual actions performed by a person who has strongly contributed to combatting climate change are less likely to be noticed) and are more likely to interpret ambiguous signals in a manner that is in line with our positive expectations (for example, an intimate touch might be interpreted as a simple sign of human connectedness rather than potential sexual harassment).
So, the moral nature of the work conducted at non-profit organisations might simultaneously facilitate the occurrence of sexual harassment and its continuance. Does this then mean that non-profit organisations are destined to sexual harassment? Or are there some things they can do to lower the risk? Drawing from the literature on moral licensing, here are some suggestions I would provide to organisations to lower these risks:
Avoid emphasising the moral nature of the work conducted. An overly strong emphasis on the virtuous nature of the work conducted within your organisation might actually backfire as it could facilitate moral licensing.
Strive towards high levels of organisational justice throughout the entire organisation (that is, ensure that decisions are made in a fair manner). If you are interested in learning more about how to ensure high levels of organisational justice, I highly recommend this article that provides a detailed description of its multiple building blocks.
Aim to hire individuals whose values match the values of your organisation and avoid hiring individuals with excessive levels of narcissism.
Overall, it is important to be aware that the occurrence of sexual harassment is a highly complex problem, and that moral licensing is only one of the many possible reasons that are at play. The above suggestions will thus not prevent all instances of sexual harassment, but they might be helpful in lowering their occurrence and can help to signal and act against such harmful behaviour. Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge that the label “sexual harassment” is used to describe a variety of behaviours and that there is still discussion amongst scholars about what it exactly entails. In this regard, it is highly unlikely that moral licensing will cause the average moral person to commit a rape crime. See it more as a mechanism that will cause people to shift their behaviour on a continuum from appropriate behaviour to sexual harassment more to the right. For more information about sexual harassment in non-profit organisations, I invite you to read the original article by Nuñez and Ollo-López and my full response to their piece.
- This blog post is based on Sexual Harassment in NPOs: How the nature of work facilitates moral licensing, Academy of Management Perspectives, (2023).
- The post represents the views of its author(s), not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
- Featured image by Rémi Walle on Unsplash
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