We all like to think we would do the right thing, no matter what. But sometimes, feelings of intimidation or a desire not to “get involved” can stop us from speaking up when we witness something at work that appears to be against the law, or at least makes us uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, it is this tendency not to want to rock the boat that allows workplace sexual harassment in the Detroit area to continue. By not confronting or reporting a harasser, co-workers are allowing them to continue their behavior.

Studying people’s harassment claims vs. reality

A recent study looked into this phenomenon and found a significant difference between what people say they would do if they saw sexual harassment, and what they actually did. Researchers began the study by having volunteers fill out an online survey about ethical behavior. One of the scenarios presented in the survey asked what the volunteer would do if they witnessed someone sexually harassing another person. Most said they would either confront the harasser or report it to appropriate parties afterward.

After completing the questionnaire, participants were told the next portion of the study was to complete a task with two other people online. The “teammates” were actually pre-programmed bots that appeared to be a woman and a man. The “woman” introduced herself to the volunteer and said she enjoyed going to the beach to surf and play volleyball. The “man” responded, “I can’t wait to see your hot a__ on the beach.”

Participants had the chance to respond to this remark directly to the “man” who made it. They also had three opportunities to report it while filling out a questionnaire after the online interaction was finished.

Fewer reported harassment than said they would

Comparing the answers to the initial survey to the number of people who confronted the sexual harassment as it happened or reported it afterward, the researchers found a significant gap. Though most had said they would do something to stop sexual harassment, most of the volunteers did nothing when faced with an apparent incident.

Women were more likely to report harassment than men. Also, those whose survey answers suggested they valued fairness more than loyalty were more likely to report. Those who indicated high levels of narcissism or an inability to challenge social norms were unlikely to speak up.

A real-world experiment?

This study is interesting, though not necessarily realistic. Most witnesses to sexual harassment are likely to see it happening face-to-face between perpetrator and victim. Also, the witness will likely know both parties better than they knew the online “strangers” used in this study. These factors are likely to affect the decision to step forward.