Every day, more disturbing stories of workplace sexual harassment and assault come to light, from the widespread toxic culture at Uber earlier this year, to the numerous allegations against Harvey Weinstein that led to his removal from the Weinstein Company and his dismissal from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
When these stories are shared, the focus is often (rightfully) on the perpetrators and how they got away with such atrocious behavior. But it’s rare that an individual can harass someone without others being aware. We need to think more carefully about what factors in the workplace have created an environment in which people feel safe to harass others.
In many cases (like that of Harvey Weinstein), an individual gets a reputation as a harasser, and yet nobody steps forward to shut down this behavior. Why do colleagues stand by and let this happen?
The Bystander Effect
Some of this can be explained by the classic work on diffusion of responsibility (also known as the bystander effect). When people witness a crime, medical emergency, or an act of harassment, they know someone should step forward. The more people who are aware of the event, though, the more people assume that someone else will step forward. The paradox is that when you are the only one aware of an event, you are much more likely to do something about it than when it happens as a part of a big organization.
Even if you do feel moved to do something, there is still a cost-benefit calculation you are likely to make. If the harassers are people in charge, then stepping forward can cost you your job. As noble as people want to be, taking a real risk to correct a wrong is hard. And so many people stay silent and go along to get along.
In addition, people are wired to adopt the actions of the people around them. If no one else has ever spoken up for or supported someone when they have complained about inappropriate behavior, or if you’ve never witnessed anyone reporting a case of harassment, then it is hard to take on that goal for yourself.
Organizations can be proactive in thanking people for stepping forward to bring occurrences of harassment to their attention to let others know that it is important for them to do the same if they witness something inappropriate.
The Importance Of A Plan
Another issue is that most people do not have a specific plan for what to do if they encounter inappropriate workplace behavior. They may have a general sense of what they should do from training programs, but research on implementation intentions suggests that people need to form a more specific plan for how they will respond if they witness something inappropriate.
That means that part of training about harassment in the workplace needs to involve the formation of an implementation intention. When you see or hear a credible report of inappropriate behavior, you should have a specific person you can talk to or a number to call that you keep in a visible place.
In addition, workplaces should actually role play these reporting scenarios with the people to whom reports can be made. This role playing has two benefits. First, it ensures that the people who will receive these reports know exactly what they are supposed to do when they get a complaint. Second, reporting harassment can cause anxiety, because people are often afraid to “get involved,” particularly when they are unsure of what it means to be involved. This role playing can help to alleviate anxiety about the unknown by making the reporting process more concrete.
This year has shown us that sexual harassment is a widespread societal problem that impacts all industries. But it’s important for each of us to view it on an individual level. One strength of the #metoo campaign is that it puts a human face on an often anonymous issue. But the next step is for each person to take individual responsibility to help fight the problem.
Partly that means that everyone needs to examine their own behavior to ensure that they are not part of the problem. Equally importantly, though, it means making the commitment to take the difficult step of doing something in the face of sexually inappropriate behaviors in the workplace. And it means making that commitment, even though it would be easier to ignore it and hope it goes away.
For example, several years ago, a student came to me to let me know that another student was watching pornography in my lab. The reporting student did a brave thing to take the responsibility to let me know what was happening.
I wasn’t sure how to handle the situation. I didn’t have a specific plan to deal with behaviors that create an uncomfortable workplace. It certainly would have been easy to ignore the complaint and hope that it did not happen again. Instead, I called a colleague and talked through the best way to proceed. Then, I spoke directly to the student and followed up with a written summary of the conversation and a statement of the consequences if there was any additional inappropriate behavior. I also let the student who reported the event know that I had taken specific action.
Although I think I did the right thing, it was not easy or fun. I had a pit in my stomach as I went to confront the student, and I felt uneasy for several days afterward. And I am the boss in my lab. It was hard for me to deal with the situation, because most people find it difficult to confront another person at work directly—even when it has no consequences for your future employment. It can be even harder to make a statement when the harassers are in charge. That is why we all need to practice doing the right thing before we have to do it for real.