Workplace Sexual Harassment Can Harm More than Just the Victim

A new study conducted by the Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM) revealed that only 17 percent of employees admit to having witnessed sexual harassment, 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. A MA employment law attorney can 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.”

To Blow the Whistle or Not to Blow the Whistle?

People can react very differently to witnessing sexual harassment, especially if they have been victims of sexual abuse or targets of sexual harassment in the past. According to Bill O’Donohue, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada in Reno, mental health issues can also be exacerbated by witnessing workplace sexual harassment or abuse. In addition to the obvious issues, the decision to blow the whistle, or to not blow the whistle, can bring an onslaught of stressors and fear.

It is the responsibility of the workplace to create a safe work environment in which employees feel comfortable coming forward with concerns. This is true whether the employee is the victim of sexual harassment, or has witnessed the sexual harassment of another employee. A Boston employment law attorney can help you protect your rights if you’ve been sexually harassed at work.

“It’s crucial to emphasize at multiple times and regularly that this kind of behavior — if someone sees it, if they’re the target of it, if they just observed something that makes them feel uncomfortable — that there needs to be a sense that the culture is open to hearing about it … regardless of whether you’re the victim or you’re somebody who observed it, that kind of information does need to be brought forward,” says Freyd. “But if employees don’t feel safe doing so, they’re not going to do it.”

Altman & Altman, LLP—Boston’s Top Employment Law Firm

If you have been a victim of workplace sexual harassment, the skilled legal team at Altman & Altman, LLP can help. We have been protecting the rights of MA workers for more than 50 years. Our experienced, knowledgeable attorneys will ensure that you fully understand your rights and options, and we will be by your side throughout the entire process. Contact Altman & Altman, LLP today for a free and confidential consultation about your case.

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