Why Unreported Sexual Harassment Can Bring Ridicule

Victims of sexual harassment often don’t react the way they think they will when actually confronted the reality of the situation.

The study, co-authored by University of Notre Dame professor of business ethics Ann Tenbrunsel, revealed that many employees don't stand up for themselves to the extent they thought would when sexually harassed. However, since those same workers use that false prediction of their own behavior as a benchmark on how they would react to the situation, they are quick to condemn others who are passive in the face of sexual harassment.

Tenbrunsel, along with researchers from the University of Utah and Brigham Young and Northwestern Universities, conducted five studies that explored observers' criticism of what the survey defines as “passive victims.”

In two of the studies, observers predicted they would be more confrontational than victims typically are, which led to greater judgment of other “passive victims,” including an unwillingness to work with them or recommend them for a job.

Another study identifed the failure to consider victims' motivation to be passive, while two others reduced condemnation of passive sexual harassment victims by highlighting their likely motivations at the time of the harassment. In addition, researchers had participants recall a past experience – a situation related to but distinct from sexual harassment – when they did not act in the face of workplace intimidation.

"If we can increase the accuracy of our predictions and realize we won't stand up for ourselves as often as we would like to think, we will be less condemning of other victims," Tenbrunsel said.

As part of the study, the researchers point to Anita Hill and the 1991 Senate confrmation hearings for Clarence Thomas' Supreme Court appointment. The researchers noted that Hill testifed she had been sexually harassed by Thomas during his tenure as head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but never confronted him. The researchers said her claim of repeated sexual harassment and perpetual inaction led to public suspicion and condemnation of Hill.

Tenbrunsel said the study's results add insights into the causes and consequences of victim condemnation and help explain why passivity in the face of harassment, the predominant response, is subject to so much scorn from observers.

The study, "Double Victimization in the Workplace: Why Observers Condemn Passive Victims of Sexual Harassment," is scheduled to appear in an upcoming edition of the journal Organization Science.

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