A new study conducted by the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) revealed that only 17 percent of employees admit to having witnessed, and only 11 percent say they were targets of sexual harassment. According to researchers, these low figures are common in surveys related to sexual misconduct. Those being surveyed may fear retaliation, or they may be ashamed, or concerned about victim shaming.
But there’s even more to it than that. Just like a victim of sexual harassment may struggle with how to describe what happened to them, and whether or not they should confront their harasser, witnesses may be equally unsure of how to approach the situation. In fact, according to Evren Esen, a former workforce analytics director at SHRM, only about 25 percent of witnesses ever report workplace sexual harassment. Determining whether to “blow the whistle” can be a complicated process.
“Regardless of whether it actually happens to you or whether you observe it, there is still a sense that reporting it is taking it to the next level,” says Evren. “It impacts the organization, the morale, and so on if this kind of behavior is just occurring and people don’t feel comfortable reporting it.”
Whistleblowing aside, witnessing sexual harassment can take a toll on an employee’s mental health just as it can harm the actual target. This is especially true if the witness has previously suffered any type of sexual harassment or abuse. Acan help you recover damages if you’ve been sexually harassed at work.
Betrayal Blindness and Institutional Betrayal
According to Jennifer Freyd, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, witnesses to workplace sexual harassment can suffer from the two types of betrayal trauma common to victims—betrayal blindness and institutional blindness. In cases of betrayal blindness, the victim or witness may “forget” or block out harassment that is conducted by a trusted and respected colleague or mentor. Institutional betrayal occurs when a victim or witness loses their sense of trust in their workplace.
Even when employees try to avoid unpleasant situations involving other workers—keeping their heads down and ‘minding their own business’—they can still be negatively affected
“You’re still in a system that is dysfunctional and it’s going to take a toll on you for that reason,” says Freyd. “So it’s like being in a dysfunctional family—it’s costly to your well-being, just swimming in that system.” Continue reading