Bystanders of Sexual Harassment

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Bystanders of Sexual Harassment

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Sexual harassment is shockingly common in American workplaces, representing one of the top complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Concern is even greater when considering that only one in four people who experience harassment report it.

This pattern has led some scholars to suggest that bystanders hold the key to stopping harassment. The idea is appealing given that 70 percent of workers have observed sexual harassment. Researchers have also shown that when presented with a hypothetical scenario, people say they will intervene in some way.

Though promising, our recent research shows that what people say they will do in hypothetical cases might not match their actual behaviors.

To illustrate, my team and I conducted an experiment to determine how harassment bystanders would react to hearing inappropriate comments about women.

Some of the participants read about a hypothetical scenario in which harassment took place, while another group observed harassment occurring in a staged setting. We determined that the participants, who were college students, overestimated how they would respond to seeing someone else get harassed. This is important because, absent distress, people are unlikely to act.

What is to be done, then? Some scholars suggest training people to intervene, similar to what takes place in Green Dot training. Others suggest organizations can reinforce the importance of reporting through an inclusive culture.

Whatever steps are taken, it is critical to equip bystanders with the skills to recognize and respond to sexual harassment.