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Three Ways to Spot a Sexual Harasser at Work

Research reveals red flags that indicate predisposition to predatory behavior

Each high profile sexual harassment case that makes the news also reveals warning signs that could have predicted predatory behavior. Because history repeats itself, past behavior is important to predict future behavior. Yet so are statements and expressed beliefs that reveal views about women. Here are three red flags that may reveal a sexual harasser in the work place.

Detecting the Dark Triad: Pairing Personality with Harassment Proclivity

Narcissistic, self-focus is often linked with selfish behavior that discounts the impact on others. Research indicates that such behavior, in addition to related “Dark Triad” traits, is linked with sexual harassment as well.

Research by Zeiglar-Hill et al. (2016) reveals that dark triad traits (narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism) are positively linked with sexual harassment proclivity in both men and women.[i] They suggested that sexual harassment might be a manipulative mating strategy that Dark Triad individuals might employ in connection with other behaviors such as infidelity, mate poaching, and sexual coercion.

Although they found a correlation, Zeiglar-Hill et al. noted that their research did not support a conclusion that Dark Triad traits predispose individuals to engage in sexual harassment. They raise the possibility that both sexual harassment and Dark Triad traits are influenced through an independent variable.

Perceiving Misperception: Predators Overestimate Victim Receptivity

Sexual harassment is not only about sex; it is also about power. Harassment can be in pursuit of sexual arousal, or sexual abuse—in the form of humiliating, dominating, or intimidating the victim. Research demonstrates that power also produces misperception of victim receptivity.

As I describe in a past column entitled “Sexual Harassment is in the Eye of the Beholder,”[ii] sexual harassment may be in the eye of the perpetrator. Believe it or not, some harassers are unaware of the inappropriateness of their conduct. Research by Kunstman and Manor (2010) entitled “Sexual Overperception: Power, Mating Motives, and Biases in Social Judgment,” reveals that some people in power direct sexual behavior toward subordinates because they overperceive receptivity.[iii] They explain that overperception is one way in which power can lead to sexual harassment.

Unfortunately, power imbalance negatively impacts victim options. Many victims feel powerless due to anxiety over job loss, negative performance reviews, reputational damage, as well as unwillingness to create “drama” in the workplace. Their failure to call out inappropriate behavior can cause it to continue.

You can spot superiors who repeatedly compliment subordinates on their body, for example, despite their targets displaying visible signs of discomfort such as shifting posture, downcast eyes, or traumatic expressions. The inability of perpetrators to distinguish distress from interest facilitates sexually harassing behavior.

Observing Objectification and Dehumanization

Dehumanizing women through objectification is positively correlated with male rape proclivity. Research by Rudman and Mescher entitled “Of Animals and Objects: Men’s Implicit Dehumanization of Women and Likelihood of Sexual Aggression,” (2017) tested the relationship between two types of dehumanization of women: objectification and animalization, and male sexual aggression.[iv]

In one study, they found men who automatically associated women with primitive constructs such as animals and instinct to be more willing to rape and sexually harass women, as well as to view female rape victims negatively. In a second study, they found that “men who automatically associated women with animals (e.g., animals, paw, snout) more than with humans” demonstrated a higher degree of rape proclivity.

In addition, they noted that “automatically objectifying women by associating them with objects, tools, and things was also positively correlated with men’s rape proclivity.” In combination, their research concluded that “men who implicitly dehumanize women (as either animals or objects) are also likely to sexually victimize them.”

Dehumanizing words and behavior are often painfully evident through jokes and comments made both in the workplace and perhaps more frequently after hours at happy hour or other work-related social functions where they are overheard, and sadly underreported. Yet these beliefs are critical to spotting sexual harassers.

Stop Sexual Harassment Before it Becomes Sexual Assault

In one of my previous columns, “Stop Sexual Harassment: From the Boardroom to the Bedroom,” I discuss how sexual harassment can lead to sexual assault.[v] Discussing “50 Shades of Red” flags and how actions speak louder than words—but words lead to actions, I discuss how sexual harassers often probe boundaries with words. Unfortunately, some harassers proceed to violate boundaries both verbally and physically when they perceive victim receptivity—and even when they don´t.

The progressive nature of sexual harassment should motivate us to focus on education and prevention, before conduct crosses the line from crass and crude, to criminal.

About the author:

Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert. She is the author of author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House).

She lectures around the world on interpersonal relationships, sexual assault prevention, safe cyber security, and threat assessment, and is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own.

Find her at or @WendyPatrickPhD

Find a full listing of Dr. Patrick´s Psychology Today posts at

[i] Virgil Zeigler-Hill, Avi Besser, Judith Morag, and W. Keith Campbell, “The Dark Triad and sexual harassment proclivity,” Personality and Individual Differences 89 (2016) 47–54.


[iii]. Jonathan W. Kunstman and Jon K. Maner, “Sexual Overperception: Power, Mating Motives, and Biases in Social Judgment,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 100, no. 2 (2010): 282–294.

[iv] Laurie A. Rudman and Kris Mescher, “Of Animals and Objects: Men’s Implicit Dehumanization of Women and Likelihood of Sexual Aggression,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 38, iss. 6 (2017), 734 – 746.