A Perfect Storm: Customer Sexual Harassment as a Joint Function of
Financial Dependence and Emotional Labor
Timothy G. Kundro
, Vanessa Burke
, Alicia A. Grandey
, and Gordon M. Sayre
Department of Management and Organization, University of Notre Dame
Department of Psychology, Pennsylvania State University
Department of Organizational Behavior, Emlyon Business School
Sexual harassment from customers is prevalent and costly to service employees and organizations, yet little
is known about when and why customers harass. Based on a theoretical model of power in organizations, we
propose that sexual harassment is a function of employees’ﬁnancial dependence on customers (i.e., tips)
and deference to customers with emotional labor (“service with a smile”) jointly activating customer power.
With a ﬁeld survey study of tipped employees who vary in ﬁnancial dependence and emotional display
requirements (Study 1), and an online experiment that manipulates ﬁnancial dependence and emotional
displays from the customer’s perspective (Study 2), our results conﬁrm that these contextual factors jointly
increase customer power and thus sexual harassment. Our research has important practical implications,
suggesting that organizations can reduce customer sexual harassment by changing compensation models or
emotional labor expectations in service contexts.
Keywords: sexual harassment, emotional labor, power
Recent sociopolitical movements have brought societal and
scholarly attention to the pervasiveness and costs of sexual harass-
ment (Medeiros & Grifﬁth, 2019;Ohlheiser, 2017), particularly
toward service providers (Johnson & Madera, 2018). In two sur-
veys, a decade apart, the majority of service employees reported
experiencing sexual harassment from customers (Gettman &
Gelfand, 2007;Madera, 2018). Sexual harassment from customers
predicts poorer health and work attitudes, even beyond the effects of
harassment by supervisors or coworkers (Barling et al., 2001;
Fitzgerald & Cortina, 2017;Gettman & Gelfand, 2007;Yagil,
2008). Although these costs to employee well-being are problematic
in their own right, sexual harassment also increases the likelihood of
employee turnover (Fitzgerald et al., 1997;Sims et al., 2005) which
is a particularly costly outcome for the organization (Merkin &
Despite the pervasiveness and known costs of sexual harassment,
extant research offers little insight into speciﬁc contextual predic-
tors. Organizational climate, reporting policies, and gender ratios
(Tenbrunsel et al., 2019;Willness et al., 2007) predict harassment
by insiders (i.e., coworkers and supervisors) but do not explain
harassment from outsiders (i.e., clients and customers) who are less
inﬂuenced by such internal organizational factors (Gettman &
Gelfand, 2007). However, research across domains has consistently
found that individuals who hold more power are more likely to
engage in sexual harassment (Berdahl, 2007;Gettman & Gelfand,
2007). To identify work factors that elicit customer sexual harass-
ment, this research suggests it is important to identify factors that
give customers power, or the capacity to inﬂuence the employees’
behavior or outcomes (Keltner et al., 2003). We propose that two
work norms in the service industry—tipping and emotional labor—
jointly increase customer power to create the “perfect storm”for
Our inquiry makes theoretical, empirical, and practical contribu-
tions to the literature. First, this article uniquely incorporates Tost’s
(2015) theorizing about when structural power, the stable and
objective work conditions that give people control over others’
resources, activates psychological power, the momentary feelings
and cognitions that emerge when holding power over others
(Anderson & Berdahl, 2002;Galinsky et al., 2003). Speciﬁcally,
this theoretical model argues that structural power activates psy-
chological power when behavioral deference is shown to the actor
(Tost, 2015). We propose that emotional labor to produce “service
with a smile”(Hochschild, 1983) signals deference to the customer,
increasing the likelihood that structural power from tipping elicits
psychological power in the customer, which thereby increases
likelihood of sexual harassment. Thus, we uniquely explain cus-
tomer sexual harassment by integrating management theory about
power and sociological theory about emotional requirements in
Furthermore, this study offers new, complementary, and action-
able evidence. Suggestions that customer sexual harassment occurs
when employees depend on tips (Mensah, 2019;Restaurant
Opportunities Centers United, Forward Together & others, 2014)
or are required to perform emotional labor (Deadrick & McAfee,
2001;Grandey et al., 2015) have scarce empirical evidence. We are
the ﬁrst to test whether the joint effect of tipping and emotional labor
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
Timothy G. Kundro https://orcid.org/0000-0003-3541-8215
For research assistance, the authors would like to thank Dennis Gallo and
Ariana Freire. Data collection was funded in part by the Pennsylvania State
University College of Liberal Arts and the Leadership Center at Wharton.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Timothy
G. Kundro, Department of Management and Organization, University of
Notre Dame, United States. Email: email@example.com
Journal of Applied Psychology
© 2021 American Psychological Association
ISSN: 0021-9010 https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000895
elicits sexual harassment due to customer power. We triangulate
ﬁndings through a ﬁeld survey of employees’perceptions (Study 1)
and an experimental vignette from the customers’perspective
(Study 2) to maximize external and internal validity and conﬁdence
in our conclusions (McGrath, 1981). Finally, this evidence con-
tributes to practical implications about the ethicality of tipping and
emotional expectations (Barry et al., 2019;Deadrick & McAfee,
2001;Lutkus, 2016) for the many employees in the service industry
(U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019).
Sexual harassment is a broad term referring to any unwanted sex-
related behavior appraised as offensive, threatening, or stressful
by the target (Schneider et al., 1997). We focus on the most
prevalent forms of sexual harassment by customers: sexual hostility
(e.g., crude comments or jokes) and unwanted sexual attention
(e.g., comments about appearance, touching, or requests for phone
number; Fitzgerald & Cortina, 2017;Madera, 2018;Mensah, 2019).
Sexual harassment is conceptualized as an abuse of power
(McLaughlin et al., 2012): Individuals who control others’re-
sources feel powerful, which leads to dominant, self-serving, and
inappropriate behaviors toward targets
(Berdahl, 2007;Cleveland &
Kerst, 1993;Fitzgerald & Cortina, 2017;Keltner et al., 2003;
Willness et al., 2007). To explain when the service context elicits
this abuse of power, we draw on a theoretical framework that
differentiates external conditions of power from internal psychological
states of power (Tost, 2015). Broadly, this model suggests that stable
work conditions (i.e., compensation practices) increase structural
power, but may not elicit dominant behavior like sexual harassment
unless episodic conditions (i.e., deferential behavior) activate psycho-
logical power. We apply this model to propose that customers
objectively hold more structural power as employees are more depen-
dent on tips, which elicits sexual harassment when coupled with
deferential positive displays (i.e., emotional labor) during the interac-
tion due to the activation of customers’psychological power (see
Structural Power: Dependence on Customer
In service contexts, we argue that customers hold more structural
power when they control the rewards and valued outcomes of the
employee, or more speciﬁcally their tipping-based income (Azar,
2005;Lynn & Simons, 2000;McCarty et al., 1990). Gratuities
(i.e., tipping) from customers are a widespread norm in the U.S. and
other countries (Azar, 2009), contributing $45 billion per year to
employee income in the U.S. restaurant industry (Azar, 2011). The
degree of structural power held by customers depends on the
organization’s compensation models. When organizations pay em-
ployees lower than minimum wage (e.g., $2.13 rather than $7.25;
U.S.), tips comprise a vast majority of employees’income (U.S.
Department of Labor, 2019). This compensation structure increases
customers’structural power because employees become more
dependent on customer gratuities (Azar, 2005;Emerson, 1962).
When asked, customers report knowing that many service employ-
ees depend on tips to make a living (Lynn, 2009), though this may
vary by whether organizations compensate with a “living wage”
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Note. Black boxes indicate the service work context; white boxes indicate reactions to the context. S1 =Study 1, a ﬁeld survey from the service employees’
perspective; S2 =Study 2, an experimental vignette method from the customer’s perspective.
Feelings of power, or psychological power, is a multifaceted concept that
consists of implicit and explicit forms (Apers et al., 2019), which can result
in prosocial behavior (Tost, 2015) and avoidant orientations (Keltner et al.,
2003). However, in the service context where the customer does not have an
ongoing relationship with the employee, power is more likely linked to a
dominant and approach orientation (i.e., Gruenfeld et al., 2008).
2KUNDRO, BURKE, GRANDEY, AND SAYRE
In fact, we suggest that structural power from compensation
structures may not always activate customers’psychological power
unless episodic conditions make their control over rewards salient.
Indeed, Tost’s (2015) model speciﬁes that structural power only
leads to psychological power when episodic factors activate mental
representations of power. According to the model (Tost, 2015),
structural power activates psychological power –the feeling or
belief that one has the capacity to inﬂuence others (Anderson et al.,
2012)–when deferential behavior is shown to the actor. In service
contexts, deference is expected toward customers (as illustrated by
the “customer is always right”mantra) and is often shown through
Emotional Labor: Deference to Customer
Smiling is considered a behavioral signal of deference during
social interactions, as those with less power are more likely to smile
toward higher power actors, regardless of their actual feelings
(Hecht & LaFrance, 1998). These deferent behaviors signal that
a“powerful person’s needs or views are more important than those
of the other individuals”(Tost, 2015, p. 38). Positive displays in a
service context signal that the employee is “friendly, helpful, and
open to requests”(Hochschild, 1983, p. 93), which ultimately have
positive impressions on customers (Diefendorff et al., 2006;Pugh,
2001). Thus, service jobs often expect employees to engage in
emotional labor to produce “service with a smile”and meet perfor-
mance standards (Diefendorff et al., 2006;Rafaeli & Sutton, 1987).
Work contexts with higher emotional labor requirements evoke
more consistent and frequent positive displays from employees
toward customers (Bono & Vey, 2007;Grandey & Gabriel,
2015). In other words, employees are more likely to show greater
behavioral deference to customer requests and feelings in work
contexts with higher emotional labor requirements (Allen et al.,
2010;Hall et al., 2006).
Applying Tost’s (2015) model to the service context, we argue
that the required positive displays in higher emotional labor work
contexts act as episodic indicators of deference to customers. The
deference makes salient the structural power from tipping depen-
dence and activates customer psychological power, or the per-
ceived capacity to inﬂuence employees. In contrast, in lower
emotional labor work contexts, positive displays are not required
and less consistently shown to customers. In these contexts,
structural power is unlikely to activate customer psychological
power due to the lack of deference shown in the interac-
Hypothesis 1: Structural power (i.e., dependence on customers’
tips) predicts higher customer psychological power when emo-
tional labor (i.e., deference in displays to customers) is also
In general, psychological power increases the likelihood of
approach-oriented and dominant behavior (Keltner et al., 2003).
Individuals who experience power are thus more likely to
engage in sexual harassment because they develop self-serving
motives, believe they can act in deviant ways with impunity, and
objectify others as a means to an end (Anderson & Berdahl, 2002;
Galinsky et al., 2003;Guinote, 2017;Sturm & Antonakis, 2015).
Thus, when contextual conditions activate psychological
power, people are more likely to dominate and coerce others in
deviant ways, such as by making sexualized comments or objecti-
fying a target (e.g., Berdahl, 2007;Cleveland & Kerst, 1993;
Tangri et al., 1982). As such, we argue that that psychological
power is a key proximal predictor of sexual harassment from
Consistent with this prediction, research has shown that when
professional women perceived clients as powerful, based on the
clients’portfolio value to the company, they were more likely
to report experiencing client sexual harassment (Gettman &
Gelfand, 2007). We extend this to contexts with one-time service
encounters between employees and customers. As per our
guiding model (Tost, 2015), we propose interactive effects such
that work contexts with higher structural power and emotional
labor increase customer sexual harassment by activating customer
psychological power. Thus, the more that employees are depen-
dent on customers’tips and expressively deferent to customers’
wants and needs, the more customers will feel powerful, and are
then likely to engage in sexual harassment toward them. In
Hypothesis 2: Customer psychological power explains the
conditional indirect effect of structural power (i.e., dependence
on customers’tips) and emotional labor (i.e., deference to
customers) on customer sexual harassment.
A pilot study supported the basic assumption that customer sexual
harassment is more likely in work contexts where customers tip (vs.
not) and emotional labor is the norm.
Contexts that differ in
customer tipping might be confounded with other work character-
istics, such as social status and customer contact. Thus, we hold
constant tipping contexts, and focus on variability in employee
dependence on tips in two studies with complementary designs:
aﬁeld survey of tipped employees holding a variety of jobs (Study
1) and an experimental vignette study from the customer’s perspec-
tive in a restaurant (Study 2). These studies constructively replicate
our model and complement each other in terms of external and
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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
We focus on emotional labor as contextual features: job requirements
and observed displays (Grandey & Gabriel, 2015). Emotional labor can also
be studied as employees’surface acting (modifying expressions to produce
faked displays) or deep acting (modifying feelings to produce genuine
displays). These are both likely to produce deferent positive displays so
we did not expect distinct effects. A separate study comparing the effect of
faked and genuine positive displays conﬁrmed no difference in perceived
power or intentions to harass (see here: https://osf.io/qjxzu).
Eligible participants were hospitality (i.e., hotel and restaurant) employ-
ees (N=176). More frequent sexual harassment was reported when employ-
ees also received tips (M=1.63, SD =.91) versus not (M=1.34,
SD =.62; b=.28, SE =.12, p=.018).
Study 1 was exempted per the Pennsylvania State University’s Institu-
tional Review Board (STUDY00012461: Health in the Service Industry).
Study 2 received approval from the Pennsylvania State University’s Institu-
tional Review Board (STUDY00010668: Perceptions of People).
All online supplementary materials can be found at this address: https://
CUSTOMER SEXUAL HARASSMENT 3
Study 1 Method: Employee Perspective
Participants and Procedure
We recruited participants from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk
(MTurk) with a prescreening survey to identify employees working
at least 35 hr a week who received regular tips from customers
(e.g., cashier, server, or hotel clerk). Our prescreening identiﬁed 142
eligible employees who were invited to complete the survey. Of
those, we received completed responses from 92 (35% female, 62%
=34.08, SD =9.27).
See the Appendix for scales and Table 1 for descriptive statistics.
For structural power, participants directly reported the extent of
ﬁnancial dependence on customer tips, operationalized as the percent
of their total income from customers’tips. For emotional labor,
participants rated three items about positive display requirements
toward customers (α=.78; 1 =not at all to 4 =very important) to
effectively perform the job (Grandey et al., 2013). For psychological
power, three items (α=.71; 1 =strongly disagree,5=strongly
agree) measured perceived customer power as customers’capacity to
control employees’outcomes and behavior, as per the deﬁnition
(Anderson et al., 2012;Tost, 2015).
Finally, respondents rated the
frequency (α=.93; 1 =never,5=many times)ofsexual harass-
ment from customers in the past 6 months, using six items from an
established measure (Gettman & Gelfand, 2007).
A conﬁrmatory factor analysis on the 12 self-reported items was
conducted using the lavaan package in R (Rosseel, 2012). The three
multi-item measures—positive display requirements, perceived
customer power, and sexual harassment—were modeled using
item level indicators. As shown in Table 2, the three-factor model
ﬁt the data better than a two-factor model that combined customer
harassment and power items [χ
(diff) =53.81, p<.001]. We then
tested our hypotheses with the path analysis model in lavaan,
consistent with ﬁrst-stage moderated mediation described by
Edwards and Lambert (2007) and shown in Figure 1. To reduce
multicollinearity, we mean centered ﬁnancial dependence and
positive display requirements, and then computed the interaction
term and bootstrapped conﬁdence intervals to test the effects of
ﬁnancial dependence at higher/lower levels (+/−1SD) of positive
display requirements (Hayes, 2015).
Study 1 Results and Discussion
See Table 3 for results. Consistent with Hypothesis 1, the relation-
ship of ﬁnancial dependence with perceived customer power was
moderated by positive display requirements (b=.02, SE =.01,
p=.001). Graphing the slopes (see Figure 2)showstherelationship
of ﬁnancial dependence and customer power was more positive when
positive display requirements were one standard deviation above the
mean (b=.021, SE =.004, p<.01) than when they were one
standard deviation below the mean (b=.002, SE =.004, p=.64).
In support of Hypothesis 2, we found a stronger positive indirect effect
of ﬁnancial dependence on sexual harassment through perceived
customer power when positive display requirements were higher
(indirect effect: b =.005, SE =.002, 95% CI [.001, 010]), compared
to when they were lower (indirect effect: b =.001, SE =.001, 95% CI
[−.001, .003]). Importantly, the index of moderated mediation was also
signiﬁcant (b=.004, SE =.002, 95% CI [.001, .008]).
These results support the notion that structural power and
emotional labor—indicated by ﬁnancial dependence on customers
and positive display requirements—jointly predict the frequency of
customer sexual harassment via perceptions of customer psycho-
logical power. These results replicate and extend prior survey work
showing employee’s perceptions of client power are related to the
perceptions of sexual harassment (Gettman & Gelfand, 2007).
However, conclusions about our theoretical model are limited given
the cross-sectional survey approach, which only investigated the
employees’perception of customers’power. This means that re-
lationships may be confounded by response biases, and we cannot
conﬁrm if positive display requirements result in observable
Descriptive Statistics and Correlations for Study 1 (Employee Perspective)
Variables M SD 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
1. Age 34.08 9.27 —
2. Gender .35 .48 .04 —
3. Minority .38 .49 −.19 .13 —
4. Tenure 6.36 5.51 .59*** .04 −.16 —
5. Hours worked per week 43.80 8.31 −.05 −.09 −.07 .11 —
6. Financial dependence (centered) .00 23.35 −.21*.02 −.04 −.22*−.09 —
7. Positive display reqs (centered) .00 .60 .11 .11 −.02 .18 −.02 −.16 (.78)
8. Financial dependence ×Pos. display reqs −2.25 13.90 .07 .01 −.12 −.02 .05 −.25*−.05 —
9. Perceived customer power 3.74 .84 −.09 .05 −.06 −.10 .12 .21*.19 .16 (.71)
10. Sexual harassment frequency 1.82 1.00 −.16 .01 .17 −.15 .14 .40*** .06 −.17 .28** (.93)
Note.N=92. Gender is a binary variable where 1 =Female and 0 =Male; Minority is a binary variable where 1 =Not-White and 0 =White. Cronbach’s
alpha’s are reported on the diagonal.
*p<.05. ** p<.01. *** p<.001 (two-tailed).
More details about the sample and compensation can be found in our
osf.io folder. We did not gather additional data because (a) the population of
eligible tipped participants was limited and (b) changes from the coronavirus
pandemic stopped or changed service interactions. All participants who
began the survey completed it in its entirety.
Please see our osf.io folder where we provide validation evidence for this
measure with a different sample.
4KUNDRO, BURKE, GRANDEY, AND SAYRE
deferent positive displays that activate customers’state of psycho-
logical power. In Study 2, we address these limitations with an
experimental test of the joint effects of ﬁnancial dependence and
positive displays on customer power and harassment.
Study 2 Method: Customer Perspective
In Study 2, we conducted an experimental study on MTurk to
manipulate the two work conditions and assess how they inﬂuence
customers’mental representation of power and intent for sexual
harassment in a “one-off”interaction, which is consistent with
service encounters. This approach focuses on the customer (i.e., the
power holder), which permits us to be more nuanced about how
psychological power is activated as per our theoretical model.
Tost (2015) proposes that psychological power can be activated in
two separate ways: (a) a conscious awareness of one’s capacity to
inﬂuence another person and their outcomes, known as sense of
power (Anderson et al., 2012) and (b) an implicit cognitive network
of associations with power that is learned from experience or
observation, such as conﬁdence, approach orientation, and self-focus
(Lang et al., 2012;Keltner et al., 2003). According to Tost, (2015)
these different forms of psychological power operate independently.
In other words, structural power can activate associations with power
without an individual ever experiencing a conscious sense of power
(Smith & Galinsky, 2010). To test this possibility, we assess sense of
power as the extent customers explicitly know they can control or
inﬂuence the employees’outcomes, and associations with power as
the extent the customer is approach oriented and conﬁdent that the
employee feels positively toward them. By measuring both from the
customers’perspective during the interaction, we conduct a more
thorough test of the theory to understand which form of psychological
power is activated and explains harassment.
Finally, we compare customer power over the employee with
another mechanism, attraction to the employee, to rule out the
generally discounted explanation that sexual harassment is a mis-
guided attempt to show sexual interest, rather than power abuse
(Berdahl, 2007;Curtis, 1998;Grandey et al., 2015).
We focused on male participants as the most frequent instigators of
sexual harassment in service contexts (Fitzgerald & Cortina, 2017;
Pryor, 1987;Jagsi et al., 2016). We recruited 244 adult men for an
online experimental study, where 229 (94%) completed the survey.
To ensure quality data, we excluded 40 participants who failed an
attention check (“please respond disagree for this question”; adapted
from Meade & Craig, 2012) and 18 who reported they were not
attracted to women (see Tracy & Beall, 2011),
resulting in a ﬁnal
sample of 171 (66% White, M
=33.35 years; SD =9.94).
A power analysis estimated at least 128 participants to detect a
medium effect with 80% power.
Participants were randomly assigned to one condition based on a 2
(high structural power vs. low structural power) ×2 (high emotional
labor vs. low emotional labor) factorial design. We followed best
practices for the experimental vignette method (Aguinis & Bradley,
2014) to design immersive and realistic scenarios. Participants took
the perspective of a customer arriving at a local restaurant “Urban
Eats”; all saw an image of the approaching waitress, read a transcript
of the exchange, and then saw an image of their ﬁnal receipt.
Structural power and emotional labor were manipulated with
text and images (see Appendix B and osf.io folder for complete
materials). For structural power,thehighﬁnancial dependence
condition informed participants that customers are top priority –
and included a receipt that had a line to enter a tip with a reminder
that “tips are appreciated”;thelowﬁnancial dependence condition
informed participants that staff are a top priority –and included a
receipt that did not have a line to enter a tip with a reminder that
employees are paid a fair wage such that “tips are appreciated but
Results of Conﬁrmatory Factor Analysis
df CFI TLI RMSEA SRMR
Hypothesized three-factor model 95.82 51 .93 .91 .098 .096
Two-factor model 149.63 53 .85 .82 .141 .129
Hypothesized four-factor model 80.99 48 .98 .97 .064 .061
Three-factor model (A) 315.33 51 .84 .80 .176 .141
Three-factor model (B) 202.97 51 .91 .88 .133 .063
Note. CFI =comparative ﬁt index; TLI =Tucker–Lewis index; RMSEA =root mean square error of approximation; SRMR
=standardized root mean
square residual within. Structural power was a single item in both studies so was not included in this analysis. In Study 1, the two-factor model combined
psychological power and sexual harassment. In Study 2, the three-factor model (A) combined sense of power and associations with power; three-factor model
(B) combined associations with power and sexual harassment.
To be included, participants had to complete our mechanism and DV
measures. However, one participant did not complete the pleasant manipu-
lation check, two did not complete the submissiveness manipulation check,
and one did not complete the attractiveness items. The direction and
signiﬁcance of our results do not change when excluding these participants
from the rest of our analyses.
More details about recruiting and compensation can be found in our
osf.io folder. We removed participants who reported not being attracted to
women to compare sexual attraction as a competing mechanism. There were
not any signiﬁcant differences in demographics for careless responders
versus ﬁnal sample.
CUSTOMER SEXUAL HARASSMENT 5
never expected.”Participants rated (1 =strongly disagree,
7=strongly agree)totheitem,“Customers in this restaurant
can inﬂuence the outcomes of the server.”The manipulation was
=5.54, SD =.99; M
=4.28, SD =1.57; F
[1, 168] =41.10, p<.001). Emotional labor was manipulated
by a photo of a female server showing an emotional expression
of high deference (positive display) or low (neutral display), using
images from the Chicago Face Database (Ma et al., 2015). The
positive display was more “pleasant”(M
=6.20, SD =0.66;
=3.77, SD =1.66; F[1, 167] =149.58, p<.001) and
=4.20, SD =.79; M
=3.90, SD =
.90; F[1, 166] =5.33, p=.02).
See Appendix A for all items. For the two ways of eliciting
customer psychological power, sense of power was measured with
four items (α=.89; 1 =strongly disagree,7=strongly agree)from
Anderson et al. (2012) and associations with power with three items
(α=.90; 1 =strongly disagree,7=strongly agree) about approach
orientation and conﬁdence in the employees’interest, adapted from
Pazda et al. (2012). As a comparison mechanism, attractiveness was
measured with three items (α=.91; 1 =strongly disagree,7=
strongly agree). Sexual harassment was measured as intentions
(α=.93; 1 =extremely unlikely,7=extremely likely) for inappro-
priate sexual attention using three items from Study 1.
A conﬁrmatory factor analysis on the 13 self-reported items from
the four measures—sense of power, associations with power, sexual
harassment, and attraction—was conducted using the lavaan pack-
age in R (Rosseel, 2012). As shown in Table 2, the hypothesized
four-factor model was better than a three-factor model where the
power items loaded onto the same factor [χ
p<.001]. Though associations with power and sexual harassment
had a strong relationship, a model where they loaded onto the same
factor was a worse ﬁt to the data [χ
(diff) =121.98, p<.001]. We
proceeded with the four-factor measurement model. First, a 2 ×2
ANOVA was conducted to compare mean by condition (see Figure 3).
Next, we tested the indirect effect of structural power on sexual
harassment simultaneously through both forms of psychological
power, with a path analysis model in lavaan and bootstrapped
conﬁdence intervals as in Study 1.
Study 2 Results and Discussion
See Table 4 for descriptives and Table 5 for results. As per
Hypothesis 1, we tested the interactive effects of structural power
Standardized and Unstandardized Coefﬁcients From Path Analysis, Study 1 (Employee Perspective)
Customer power Sexual harassment
Est. SE 95% CI Est. SE 95% CI
Financial dependence .01*** .003 .006, .017 .02** .005 .006, .024
Positive display requirements .35*.148 .059, .654 —— —
Financial dependence ×Positive display requirements .02** .005 .007, .025 —— —
Customer power —— — .24** .092 .066, .431
Indirect Effects Est. SE 95% CI
Financial dependence →Customer power →Sexual harassment
Higher positive display requirements .005*.002 .001, .010
Lower positive display requirements .001 .001 −.001, .003
Index of moderated mediation .004*.002 .001, .008
*p<.05. ** p<.01. *** p<.001 (two tailed).
Interaction of Financial Dependence and Positive Display Require-
ments on Perceived Customer Power, Study 1
Low Financial Dependence High Financial Dependence
rewoP remotsuC d
Low Pos. Display
6KUNDRO, BURKE, GRANDEY, AND SAYRE
and emotional labor conditions on our two different forms of
psychological power. For sense of power, the conditions did not
signiﬁcantly interact, F(1, 167) =.69, p=.41, failing to ﬁnd sup-
port for Hypothesis 1. However, for associations with power, we
found the predicted interaction, F(1, 167) =4.84, p=.029, as
shown in Figure 3a. In support of Hypothesis 1, when there was
a positive display, high (vs. low) ﬁnancial dependence evoked
greater associations with power (M
=4.14, SD =1.71; M
3.38, SD =1.62; F[1, 167] =4.24, p=.04) but not when there
was a neutral display (M
=3.34, SD =1.67; M
SD =1.57; F[1, 167] =1.04, p=.31). The interaction of ﬁnancial
dependence and positive display also directly predicted sexual
harassment, F(1, 167) =5.68, p=.018, as shown in Figure 3b.
Given the signiﬁcant interaction effect on associations with
power, as well as the conditional direct effect on harassment, we
tested the conditional indirect effects proposed in Hypothesis 2 with
the associations of power measure.
Results revealed a signiﬁcant
positive indirect effect of ﬁnancial dependence on sexual harass-
ment through associations with power when there was a positive
display (b=.67, SE =.33, 95% CI [.04, 1.35]) but not when there
was a neutral display (b=−.31, SE =.30, 95% CI [−.91, .28]).
The difference between the indirect effects was also signiﬁcant
(index of moderated mediation: b =.98, SE =.45, 95% CI
[.11, 1.88]). Thus, Hypothesis 2 was supported with this form
We also tested a competing view, or that positive displays are
misconstrued by customers holding structural power as attraction,
which results in sexual harassment. The interaction of ﬁnancial depen-
dence and display conditions did not predict attractiveness (b=.08,
SE =.34, p=.81), and after controlling for attractiveness, the indirect
conditional effect through associations with power was still signiﬁcant
when there was a positive display (b=.71, SE =.32, 95% CI
[.10, 1.35]), but not a neutral display (b=−.30, SE =.29, 95% CI
[−.88, .28]), with a signiﬁcant difference between the two (index of
moderated mediation: b =1.01, SE =.44, 95% CI [.16, 1.87]).
Moreover, when accounting for associations of power, there was
not a signiﬁcant effect of perceived attractiveness on sexual harassment
(b=.13, SE =.08, p=.10). Thus, our results are not explained by
In summary, we found support for Hypotheses 1 and 2 with
customers’associations with power, but not sense of power, using a
controlled online experiment. We ﬁnd that structural power and
emotional labor jointly activate power-related beliefs and action
orientation after interacting with the server, which then explains
intent for inappropriate sexual attention toward the server. The
results support Tost’s (2015) suggestion that the conscious sense
of power is not always necessary to elicit approach-oriented and
deviant behavior, and instead suggests customer sexual harassment
comes from work conditions eliciting implicit associations
Our primary aim was to understand when—and why—service
employees face sexual harassment from customers. In doing so, we
adopted a power perspective to argue that sexual harassment
emerges when there is increased customer psychological power
(Anderson & Berdahl, 2002;van Kleef et al., 2008), pointing to
structural power and emotional labor as joint contextual antece-
dents. Across two different studies that balanced internal and
external validity (Crandall & Sherman, 2016), we found conver-
gent support for our hypotheses. In Study 1, we found that
employees who work in higher structural power contexts and
have higher emotional labor requirements are the most likely to
perceive that customers have power, which ultimately predicts
sexual harassment. In Study 2, an experimental study conﬁrmed
that the high structural power and high emotional labor manipula-
tions activated associations with power, which predicted greater
intentions for sexual harassment.
We contribute to an emerging—and important—body of research
on customer sexual harassment. Although most research has inves-
tigated when organization insiders engage in sexual harassment,
theories and ﬁndings in this domain lack relevance and generaliz-
ability in the service context (Gettman & Gelfand, 2007). Building
on prior work, we examine a contingency perspective that suggests
Descriptive Statistics and Correlations for Study 2 (Customer’s Perspective)
Variables M SD 12 3 45 6 7 8 9
1. Age 33.35 9.94 —
2. Minority .34 .47 −.06 —
3. Financial dependence .52 .50 .10 .12 —
4. Positive display .47 .50 −.07 −.05 .01
5. Financial dependence ×Positive display .25 .43 .01 .02 .55*** .61*** —
6. Sense of power 4.27 .81 −.06 .12 .02 .02 .06 (.89)
7. Associations with power 3.63 1.66 −.08 .15 .05 .08 .17*.56*** (.90)
8. Attractiveness 5.29 1.16 −.04 −.08 −.05 .29*** .16*.20** .25*** (.91)
9. Sexual harassment intentions 2.68 1.81 −.17*.19*.06 .12 .21** .69*** .82*** .28*** (.93)
Note.N=171 for all variables except attractiveness, where N=170 due to missing data. Manipulated variables are ﬁnancial dependence (1 =high tipping
dependence, 0 =low tipping dependence) and positive display (1 =positive display, 0 =neutral display).
*p<.05. ** p<.01. *** p<.001 (two tailed).
When there was a positive display, ﬁnancial dependence predicted
harassment intent (M
=3.33, SD =1.97; M
=2.45, SD =1.64; F
[1, 167] =4.97, p=.03), but not when there was a neutral display (M
2.27, SD =1.70; M
=2.68, SD =1.77; F[1, 167] =1.23, p=.27).
Following recommendations from the study by Kirk (2012), we did not
include other potential mechanisms in this model (i.e., sense of power or
attractiveness). However, the direction and signiﬁcance of our results do not
change when we include either or both of these variables in our analyses.
CUSTOMER SEXUAL HARASSMENT 7
psychological power only emerges when structural power (i.e.
ﬁnancial dependence) and emotional labor requirements, are both
higher. Our ﬁndings highlight how emotional labor activates the link
between structural and psychological power by encouraging epi-
sodic displays of deference to the customer. Indeed, when emotional
labor is low, and employees do not show deference customers’
feelings with a constant smile, customers do not develop psycho-
logical power due to their control over tipping. Thus, our studies
show that tipping and emotional labor play an integral role in
activating customer psychological power. Our research contributes
to larger conversations on the link between pay and unjust treatment
(Caulﬁeld, in press), while identifying two unique facets of the
service industry that evoke sexual harassment.
Similarly, our research contributes to the view that emotional labor
requirements are problematic in that they constrain self-determined
behavior and increase unfair treatment of employees (Barry et al.,
2019;Grandey et al., 2015). Speciﬁcally, our study is the ﬁrst to show
that deference to customers, operationalized as enacting required
positive displays, can elicit unfair treatment in the form of sexual
harassment. Notably, some scholars have argued that costs of emo-
tional labor can be mitigated by using deep-acted or genuinely
portrayed emotional regulation (Grandey, 2003;Humphrey et al.,
2015). However, an additional study revealed that genuine smiles had
similar effects as faked smiles on power and sexual harassment (see
osf.io). It is possible, however, that faking a smile is a likely response
to sexual harassment and increases burnout due to that effort. We call
on future research to test such extended costs.
Importantly, our research shows this dark side of emotional labor
depends on structural power given to customers in the form of tipping
compensation. A practical implication of our joint effects is that
management can improve working conditions by either loosening
emotional labor requirements (Barry et al., 2019;Deadrick &
McAfee, 2001;Lutkus, 2016)orreducingemployeerelianceon
customer tips. For example, companies are starting to consider other
compensation models beyond customer tipping (Zetlin, 2019). Ad-
dressing one of the two of these may be sufﬁcient to reduce customer
sexual harassment, with important practical implications for health and
turnover (Barling et al., 2001;Fitzgerald et al., 1997).
Limitations and Future Directions
The conclusions of these two studies must be evaluated in light of
several limitations. Sexual harassment was either perceived by service
employees or reported as intentions by participants playing the role of
customer; these may be colored by recall biases and social desirabil-
ity, respectively. Although obtaining actual behavior is ideal, in-
person lab studies pose ethical concerns (Cozby, 2007) that when
addressed are costly to psychological realism (Bauman et al., 2014).
Research suggests that intentions to engage in deviant behavior are
predictive of actual behavior (Ajzen, 1991;Chang, 1998), and a
typical service context between strangers is similar to our anonymous
research context. Thus, our approach balances these trade-offs.
Our two studies have methodological limitations. All variables in
Study 1 were self-reported at one point in time, meaning that
confounds likely exist and causal order cannot be conﬁrmed. In
Study 2, we manipulated structural power and emotional labor to
permit causal conclusions, but power and harassment were mea-
sured the same time. Both studies focus on White employees; other
groups may have distinct experiences (Berdahl & Moore, 2006).
Future research should manipulate other demographic and work
conditions and obtain measures of power and harassment seperated
by time or source (Rucker et al., 2011).
Finally, we sought to understand how customers abuse their
power with sexual harassment, but power can also elicit prosocial
behaviors when the power holder feels responsible for the target
(Tost & Johnson, 2019). For instance, customers with higher
psychological power who have collaborative or developmental
relationships with the service provider (i.e., beauty stylists or
teachers) may use their power by posting positive online reviews
or recommending the employee to others. We encourage the future
work to explore conditions when customer structural power en-
hances prosocial approach-oriented behavior.
Unstandardized Coefﬁcients From Path Analysis, Study 2
Associations with power Sexual harassment
Est. SE 95% CI Est. SE 95% CI
Financial dependence −.35 .34 −1.02, .32 .05 .16 −.28, .36
Positive display −.32 .36 −1.00, .37 —— —
Financial dependence ×Positive display 1.11*.50 .11, 2.09 —— —
Associations with power —— — .89*** .05 .79, .97
Indirect effects Est. SE 95% CI
Financial dependence →Associations with power →Sexual
Positive display .67*.33 .04, 1.35
Neutral display −.31 .30 −.91, .28
Index of moderated mediation .98*.45 .11, 1.88
Note. N =171.
*p<.05. *** p<.001 (two tailed).
8KUNDRO, BURKE, GRANDEY, AND SAYRE
Sexual harassment is a problematic—and remarkably pervasive—
element of the service industry. Our research suggests that ﬁnancial
dependence and emotional labor requirements combine to create the
“perfect storm”that create customer psychological power which
leads to sexual harassment. By demonstrating that two deeply
ingrained elements of the service industry elicit sexual harassment
by customers, it is our hope that this research can be used to prevent
such behavior in the future.
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Study 1: Survey Items (Employee)
Emotional Labor: Positive Display Requirements
How important are the following behaviors to be evaluated as
performing your job effectively?
•Being friendly and having a good attitude.
•Being sensitive and understanding to others.
•Maintaining composure and hiding anger.
Psychological Power: Perceived Customer Power
Where I work :::
•::: customers have more power than I do.
•::: I have to act in a way that pleases customers.
•::: customers directly inﬂuence the extent that employees
get rewarded and recognized.
Sexual Harassment: Sexual Hostility and Unwanted
In the past year, how often have you been in a situation where a
customer or client :::
•::: told sexual jokes or stories when you were nearby.
•::: made sexualized hand gestures or expressions.
•::: made offensive remarks about your appearance, body,
or off-work activities.
•::: made repeated requests to go out for meals or drinks,
despite your saying no?
•::: asked for your personal contact information (e.g., cell
phone or social media access).
•::: touched you in a way that made you feel
Study 2: Survey Items (Customer)
Psychological Power: Sense of Power
•I think I have a great deal of power.
•If I want to, I get to make the decisions.
•I can get her to listen to what I say.
•I can get her to do what I want.
Psychological Power: Associations With Power
•If I asked for her phone number she’d probably give it
•If I told her she was attractive, she’d probably be
•If I asked her out, she’d probably say yes.
CUSTOMER SEXUAL HARASSMENT 11
Sexual Harassment: Unwanted Sexual Attention
I would be likely to :::
•Consider making requests for drinks or a date.
•Consider exchanging phone numbers.
•Touch her in a joking manner.
•How attractive do you ﬁnd this person?
•How good-looking do you ﬁnd this person?
•How charming do you ﬁnd this person?
Study 2 Experimental Manipulation Images
Note. See our osf.io folder for complete details. See the online article for the color version of this ﬁgure.
Received June 15, 2020
Revision received December 30, 2020
Accepted January 16, 2021 ▪
12 KUNDRO, BURKE, GRANDEY, AND SAYRE