Why Is Sexual Harrassment Being Ignored In The Retail Industry?

Did you know that nearly 50% of retail workers in the U.K. have experienced sexual, racist, homophobic or otherwise very offensive language in the workplace, and that about 11% of retail workers experienced inappropriate touching at work?

Research conducted in the U.S. revealed similar findings, according to a National Institutes of Health poll of more than 15,000 workers. Of those surveyed, at least 20% experienced sexual harassment.

Media attention largely focuses on the widespread presence of harassment in politics and media, but recent analysis by the Center for American Progress demonstrates its pervasiveness across all industries according to Racked—particularly in industries with a high number of service-sector workers.

The study spanned a decade’s worth of data pertaining to sexual harassment charges filed through the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Out of more than 85,000 charges analyzed, 13.44% of the EEOC’s sexual harassment claims came from retail—the second highest percentage after the accomodation and food services industry.

Why is Sexual Harassment in the Retail Industry Such a Problem?

Experts relate the high number of sexual harassment incidents in retail to the marked vulnerability of its workers. In fact, according to Josie Torielli (Assistant Director of Intervention Programs at the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault):

“In retail, workers tend to be women and specifically women of color. Being a woman, or a woman of color makes workers more vulnerable to sexual harassment because sexual harassers tend to be looking for someone who is not going to report or if they do report, are not going to be believed or taken seriously.”

~ Racked

That’s not to say that men don’t encounter harassment in the retail industry. But while both women and men experience inappropriate touching and sexual, racist, homophobic and other discriminatory language at similar rates, men face physically aggressive or violent behavior significantly more than women.

Another problem is the high percentage of complaints against employers who don’t have appropriate procedures in place to help prevent harassment. According to Retail Dive:

  • 41% of victims weren’t satisfied with the results following their complaints.
  • 24% of victims felt their employers didn’t care about protecting them from abuse.
  • 22% of victims believe their employers lack confidential means of filing complaints.

Sadly, nearly 40% of sexual harassment victims said they didn’t think anything helpful would come of filing a complaint. Among those who did file a complaint, a scant 7.1% said their claims were actually investigated.

“If employers fail to encourage workers to report unacceptable behavior or leave their complaints uninvestigated, it’s likely harassment of all types will persist in the workplace.”

~ Retail Dive

What Can Employers Do?

“The number one mistake managers make with sexual harassment is avoiding it,” says RetailerNOW. “Remember, it’s the store owner or manager’s obligation not only to protect the business but also the people involved.”

Employers are advised to document even the most minor incidents rather than brushing them off. Once this is complete, retailers should work with the parties involved to address the issue.

Below are 5 steps retailers can take to resolve sexual harassment incidents:

  1. Conduct a prompt and thorough investigation into the complaint, maintaining the confidentiality of those involved as much as possible. The investigation doesn’t need to go beyond talking one-on-one to the parties involved—as well as witnesses—to ascertain the facts.
  2. Discipline the harasser and/or require them to participate in training, as appropriate.
  3. Remind the party being investigated that they can’t retaliate in any way against the complainant.
  4. Record the investigation and action taken.
  5. Document each of these steps. It’s possible that one of these steps may put an end to the issue and improve the working environment for employees. If the harassment continues, however, be prepared to take more serious actions.

Address potential harassment complaints head on. Adhering to a strict rule of documenting all complaints protects both retailers and their employees.


All employers must have a policy on how they plan to respond to sexual harassment, plus established policies on how sexual harassment claims will be investigated, and how to report harassment. Employers also need to offer training for employees, supervisors, and leadership, along with establishing policies regarding the discipline of sexual harassers.

“If there is a dynamic that is going on that is unhealthy, instead of letting that dynamic continue to foster and graduate to forms of sexual harassment and harm, those behaviors are being effectively addressed.”

~ Racked

With a comprehensive approach to sexual harassment—and more accomodations and protections for victims—employers will help reduce insufficient complaint procedures, as well as corporate neglect, and the vulnerability of workers in the retail industry.

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Sherene Funk is the author of the contemporary romance Autumn in Your Arms and two small business e-books. She is a voracious reader who owns more books than she can ever read in this lifetime. A graduate of Brigham Young University, she worked in advertising for many years before moving to her current writing position at Rain Retail Software. She researches non-stop to see what successful retailers do and loves to share what she learns with small business owners.