Sexual harassment victims often ‘silenced’ by others: Study

Colleagues, supervisors and HR all play a part

Sexual harassment victims often ‘silenced’ by others: Study
Despite conveying concerns or claims of sexual harassment to colleagues, supervisors or human resources, women are often told to move on and stop raising the issue, according to a recent study.Shutterstock

Despite conveying concerns or claims of sexual harassment to colleagues, supervisors or human resources, women are often told to move on and stop raising the issue, according to a recent study.

These third parties can be complicit in silencing people who experience harassment, which not only provides a safe haven for perpetrators but makes victims feel confused, unsupported and, ultimately, “compelled to acquiescence,” said “Sex-based Harassment and Organizational Silencing: How Women are Led to Reluctant Acquiescence in Academia” in Human Relations, a U.K. peer-reviewed journal.

As a result, victims feel demoralized, and they disengage from work and the social fabric of the workplace, leading to reduced productivity, organizational commitment and profit.

“This is a cause for huge amounts of turnover because reluctant acquiescence doesn’t make the problem go away; in fact, a lot of times, these victims are as upset with the perpetrators as they are with the individuals who they feel silenced by because, at the end of day, it very much is a matter that they weren’t trusted that this actually occurred,” said Ajnesh Prasad, co-author and Canada research chair at the School of Business at Royal Roads University in Victoria.

In looking at studies on sex-based harassment, and in interviewing 31 early and mid-career academics working at business schools at universities in the United Kingdom, the researchers found well-meaning colleagues often told victims to not voice their discontent because of the potential for career repercussions and social isolation.

Victims were also told their experiences didn’t amount to harassment — that they were common and insignificant — and if they wanted to file a formal complaint, they’d need to show otherwise.

“In all the cases, people weren’t actively trying to silence the victims, and they tried to be sympathetic with what the victim was saying, but ultimately they came to the conclusion ‘You shouldn’t pursue this because it’s going to cause harm to your overall career trajectory and you really don’t have either the necessary evidence to proceed with this claim or it’s actually not what you think it is,” said Prasad.

HR’s role

When women complained to HR, they were often urged to be patient and allow the issue to be quietly resolved, said the study.

When it comes to HR’s role, there’s a lot of silence about what will happen to an individual who proceeds with formal complaints, and the protections that are available, said Prasad.

“HR is often seen as this very neutral arbitrator of these types of very stormy situations when, in fact, informants alluded to, and we then conclude, that HR is very much complicit in fostering a climate of silence,” he said.

“It really makes the victims feel, ‘What was the point?’”

It’s mainly a matter of HR protecting, over and above everything, the organization’s interests and ensuring that nothing goes public, said co-author Dulini Fernando, associate professor at the Warwick Business School at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom.

“It’s not that the organization doesn’t do anything… they will take the complaint onboard and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” she said. “But it’s done very discretely and they will make sure it’s never told to the victim. The case is played down in front of the victim because they do not want the word to get out and they do not want to admit the organization is to blame, or the procedures.”

In the eyes of HR, it’s a fair compromise, said Fernando.

“HR people seem to see themselves as people who solve conflict and try to mediate between the interests of the organization and various parties. So, in their own way, they see themselves as creating this compromise situation, solving everybody’s interests: ‘Keep everything quiet, don’t let conflict escalate, speak to people, make sure it doesn’t happen again and just shut it down.’”


There are five implications to the research, said the authors. One, it is important to legitimize complaints about sex-based harassment, meaning opening up more channels for people to speak out, having policies that safeguard employees who challenge the system, and having leaders establish a supportive culture.

Second, employers should consider how work is organized, managed and rewarded, and how structures potentially facilitate harassment. For example, academic careers are heavily dependent on senior collaboration, and people don’t like to make powerful enemies in the tightly knit academic community.

Third, there should be well-defined policy documents in place, to define exactly what harassment is and how to deal with reported cases, and provide support for victims. Victims should also feel that justice has been accorded and culprits are adequately punished.

Fourth, HR should be careful not to “consolidate hegemonic discourses” in an effort to protect the interests of the organization.

Finally, employees should consider the repercussions of their actions and discourses as they may inadvertently isolate victims, while aiding and abetting harassers.

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