Good Intentions to Oppose Sexual Harassment Aren’t Good Enough
Imagine you are in a group of three people, all of whom are meeting one another for the first time. The other two people are a man and a woman. If the man made a sexually harassing comment to the woman, what would you do? Would you stand up for her? Would you report it? If you’re like most people, you are probably thinking “of course I would speak up.’’ But would you really? We found that most people have the good intention to report sexual harassment if they witness it, but they often don’t have the courage to follow through.
In our research, we created an online survey regarding ethical decision making, which included one scenario about sexual harassment in the workplace. We asked people: would you report sexual harassment you witnessed? Would you call people out? We then had participants complete various other questionnaires to fill time.
After several minutes of completing unrelated questionnaire items, participants were told they would be engaging in an online task with two other people. However, the two other people, who participants believed were a man and a woman, were actually pre-programmed bots.
The participant and the two supposed new “team members” were asked to introduce themselves, say where they were from, and describe what they liked to do. During the introductions, “Emma,” the supposed female teammate, indicated that she liked to play volleyball and surf at the beach, to which “Steve,” the male bot teammate, responded: “I can’t wait to see your hot ass on the beach.” Immediately following this incident, participants had the opportunity to reply to the comment or to confront Steve. Not many people did. In our first study, about 2/3 of our participants indicated that they would report harassment when they saw it, but, of those, only 20% actually confronted Steve during the online team task. In other words, only a fifth of people who earlier had indicated that they would confront sexual harassment actually did so when in a “real life” situation.
Participants were then given three additional opportunities to report the sexual harassment in a questionnaire they completed after their interaction with Emma and Steve. More people reported the incident on the questionnaire than had confronted Steve right after it happened, but we still found that people who had said “of course I’d speak up” in the initial survey often failed to do so after actually observing harrassment just 20 minutes later. Less than half of the participants reported the harassment even though doing so only required clicking “yes” on a yes/no question.
Why don’t people speak up after they say they will? A large body of research has examined this broader question in other contexts; researchers have known for a long time that people aren’t very good at following through with intended plans and goals (failed New Year’s resolutions being one obvious example). However, we uncovered some specific psychological differences among our participants that were associated with the likelihood of reporting sexual harassment. For example, people with higher moral courage—those who are willing to go against social norms for a moral cause—were more likely to confront the harasser and report the harassment later. On the other hand, participants who scored high in narcissism were less likely to do so. You may have met someone like this—the narcissist who wouldn’t even recognize harassment because they are so focused on themselves (insert eye roll here). We also found that women were more likely to report (but not confront) sexual harassment than men when they saw it (insert feminist cheers here).
What else? Personal values (moral values) also matter. For example, let’s say your good friend sexually harassed someone in front of you. Yes, I realize this would be awkward, but these things happen. If you strongly valued your loyalty to that friend, you may be less likely to report him or her or to speak up and say something (such as “hey, that’s not cool…”). On the other hand, if you value fairness and consider harassment unfair, our research suggests that you may be more likely to report your friend.
The bottom line of our research is that it is much easier to imagine yourself standing up against sexual harassment than to actually do it. If you want to be the kind of person who speaks up, it may take more than just good intentions; bystanders need to have the courage to speak up! Many people who want to speak up but aren’t sure how to. Our research suggests that people high in moral courage are more likely to report and confront sexual harassment. Finally, more people were more likely to report when given a direct yes/no opportunity compared to those who had to come forward on their own, which suggests that it may be helpful for organizations to explicitly ask people about harassment rather than waiting for them to report it.
For Further Reading
Goodwin, R., Graham, J., & Diekmann, K. A. (2020). Good intentions aren't good enough: Moral courage in opposing sexual harassment. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 86, 103894. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2019.103894
Dodson, S., Goodwin, R., Chambers, M. K., Graham, J., & Diekmann, K. (2020). Moral foundations, himpathy, and attitudes toward sexual misconduct claims. In Academy of Management Proceedings (Vol. 2020, No. 1, p. 14553). Briarcliff Manor, NY: Academy of Management.
Halmburger, A., Baumert, A., & Schmitt, M. (2016). Determinants of moral courage. In S.T. Allison, G.R. Goethals, & R.M. Kramer (Eds.). Handbook of heroism and heroic leadership (pp. 165-184).
Skitka, L. J. (2012). Moral convictions and moral courage: Common denominators of good and evil. M. Mikulincer, P.R. Shaver (Eds.), The social psychology of morality: Exploring the causes of good and evil, American Psychological Association, Washington, DC, pp. 349-365 https://doi.org/10.1037/13091-019
May, D. R., Luth, M. T., & Schwoerer, C. E. (2014). The influence of business ethics education on moral efficacy, moral meaningfulness, and moral courage: A quasi-experimental study. Journal of Business Ethics, 124, 67-80.
Rachael Dailey Goodwin is a Ph.D. student in Management at the University of Utah and a research fellow at Harvard University. She investigates workplace issues related to leadership, managerial social cognition, and gender. Her research also explores perceptions of perpetrators and victims, whistleblowing, and unethical behaviors—including sexual harassment—that create obstacles for women at work.