If you’re female, and you were subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace, what would you do? You’d take some action — confront the harasser, get up and leave, report the incident, something, right? Well, probably not. Chances are you’d remain passive.
And if you observed a coworker being passive when subjected to sexual harassment, what would you do? Unfortunately, you might well find yourself condemning her for her passivity, because you think that if you were in her shoes, you would have done something.
Those are the findings of research recently conducted by the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business. According to Dr. Kristina Diekmann, a co-author of the study, many victims of sexual harassment find themselves doubly victimized due to the reactions of judgmental coworkers who think the victims didn’t do enough to stop the harassment.
I spoke with Diekmann last week, and she explained that the reason for this condemnation is that people “mispredict” what they would do under those circumstances.
Our research speaks to showing that observers of passive victims of sexual harassment are likely to condemn them, and that their predictions of what they would have done, which is mostly to take action, is linked to their condemnation of the passive victim. The second thing is we identify an important reason for this is that people don’t understand the motivations that the victim is experiencing. Because they’re at a psychological distance, they perceive that their reaction would be, “I’m going to get back at this guy,” not the motivation of, “I need to get this job.”
In fact, Diekmann said, coworkers often go so far as to distance themselves from the passive victim:
One of the things we found was that if asked to work on an important project with a person who remained passive to sexual harassment, people are less willing to work with that person. It’s this sense of, “I would have done something different.” You negatively evaluate that person: “The fact that you remained passive means that there’s something wrong with you. I don’t want to work with you because of that."
I asked Diekmann if she had any sense of whether there are any characteristics of people in the IT profession that tend to make them more or less likely to exhibit behavior that is consistent with the findings of the study. She said she doesn’t think there’s any one particular type of person or industry that is more likely to exhibit this behavior:
The reason I say that is people don’t understand that they’re doing this. They don’t understand that they’re making mistakes in their predictions of what they would do. We argue that organizations need to make people aware, and understand what is the experience of the victim, so that we can support them rather than condemn them. If you understand why they remained passive, you can be more empathetic. So I don’t think there’s any one industry that’s going to exhibit this more than others.
The bottom line, Diekmann said, is that it isn’t enough for organizations to educate their employees on what sexual harassment is. They need to institute training programs that include an awareness of the tendency to mispredict what people would do in the same situation experienced by sexual harassment victims:
There’s a powerful message for organizations about what they can do help reduce this double victimization. They clearly need to try to prevent sexual harassment from occurring. But if it occurs, there has to be support for the victim, and understanding that passive victims are likely to be condemned. And that’s wrong.