It’s a safe bet that the #MeToo movement will go down in history as the moment the world is finally facing the realities of gender-based harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Thanks to thousands of brave individuals who spoke up and shared their stories, harassment has been cast out of the shadows. It’s no longer confined to private conversations behind office doors or obscured by non-disclosure agreements. We now have a very clear picture of the problem: what it looks like, its risk factors, and just how much damage it can cause.
But there’s a lot we still don’t know about harassment. We don’t know how many incidents have gone unreported or underreported. We don’t know all the reasons why many people who have suffered harassment stay silent. We can guess about some factors—shock, shame, fear of reprisal, the assumption that nothing will be done—but without a clear understanding of the circumstances and mechanisms that compel victims to remain silent, organizations can’t fully address and overcome harassment.
In 2016, researchers Dulini Fernando and Ajnesh Prasad decided to confront this issue by interviewing 31 women about harassment they had experienced or witnessed in the workplace. Fernando and Prasad encouraged their subjects “to describe events as vividly as possible and to reflect on how they and others they knew felt at each moment.” As they describe in a recent article for the Harvard Business Review, the researchers learned that it’s not really a case of people choosing to remain silent, but of deeply embedded organizational systems designed to keep people from speaking up:
“Our interviewees described a plethora of incidents that they or others they knew had experienced, including sexist remarks, harassment during pregnancy and after giving birth, gender-based bullying, and sexually motivated advances. We asked them whether they stayed silent about their experiences.
Contrary to what we expected, all of our interviewees told us they shared their experiences with line managers, HR personnel, and professional colleagues to make sense of and seek redress for what happened. Then they described how they were ultimately persuaded to move on and stop raising the issue.
We noted three barriers that victims encountered when they started to speak about experiences of sex-based harassment: First, they were told they had to prove that their experience was uncommon and significant; second, they were expected to ‘trust the system’ to resolve their issues; and third, they faced severe consequences, such as a damaged reputation, when they challenged the system.”
I urge to take some time and look through the entire article. It’s an eye-opening (and deeply frustrating) read for anyone who works in compliance. One major theme is that everyone’s words and actions matter: we can use our power to make it easy to report harassment, or to silence its victims. For example, here’s how one woman the researchers interviewed describes how her colleagues discouraged her from complaining:
“He made my life miserable during maternity leave, hinting that I strategically chose to have children during the grant. But my team members were like, ‘Even if you leave the organization, getting the wrong person on your bad side can effectively ruin your career, especially if it’s someone in your area. So just keep quiet. You don’t want to be known as a parasite.’ Of course I don’t want to be known as a parasite. So I am scared to open my mouth, to be honest, although I really want to.”
Fernando and Prasad leave readers with a few recommendations for creating a safe environment for people who have experienced or witnessed harassment to speak up, and—surprise, surprise—the recommendations are the same as a few we cover in our upcoming harassment webinar. If ending the silence around harassment is important to you (and if you’re reading this, it really ought to be), don’t miss your chance to join us later this month for Anti-Harassment Initiative Best Practices, a free, hour-long webinar co-presented by Compli and Fisher Phillips.