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Bystander Effect of Workplace Harassment

A woman suffering from harrasment at work

There’s a famous saying (often misattributed to Edmund Burke but poignant nevertheless): “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Workplace harassment is a form of evil experienced by people around the United States daily. It may take the form of “hostile work environment” harassment–words and conduct that make an employee’s work life unbearable–or “quid pro quo” harassment–workplace benefits or penalties conditioned on an exchange of romantic or sexual acts. In either form, workplace harassment is both unacceptable and illegal.

Unfortunately, many otherwise “good” people witness harassment in the workplace but fail to intervene, either informally or formally. The “bystander effect” perpetuates the culture of harassment that has infected American workplaces for years. Continue reading for a discussion of the bystander effect on workplace harassment, and if you’ve experienced or witnessed harassment in your workplace, call an experienced Riverside workplace harassment lawyer for help.

What is the Bystander Effect?

If you see someone else being sexually harassed or being subjected to harassment based on their race, religion, sexual identity, or other protected characteristic, you can choose to do something: You can speak up in the moment and ask the harasser to stop. You can take things a step further as well, reporting the conduct to HR or an outside agency.

The “bystander effect” refers to the culture of silence around workplace harassment. People stay on the sidelines, refusing to intervene upon witnessing harassment. In many ways, standing by and failing to do anything can be just as harmful as actively participating in the harassment.

Standing By Normalizes Problematic Conduct

When people witness harassing conduct and do nothing, they normalize the actions being committed. Perpetrators of the harassment may feel like bystanders agree with them, empowering them in their decision to harass. Perpetrators of harassment might not even be aware that their conduct is inappropriate–speaking up can start a conversation that can result in the perpetrator realizing their error and adjusting their behavior.

If no one does anything, the perpetrator has no reason to feel they are doing anything wrong. If the person being targeted is the only person to speak out, the perpetrator may feel the victim is being overly sensitive or reactionary. If others on the sideline step in, the perpetrator will actually be confronted with the problems inherent in their behavior.

When Victims Feel Alone, They Don’t Come Forward

Victims suffering from harassment are often too intimidated to speak out or feel they lack the evidence to prove their claims. What’s the point in reporting harassment if there’s no written evidence of the event, and it’ll just be the victim’s word versus the perpetrator? Reporting harassment can be especially difficult if the perpetrator is a supervisor; the victim may feel saying something will only hurt their career or position with the company without yielding any positive results.

That feeling of isolation and powerlessness is made worse when coworkers stand by and do nothing in the face of harassment. The victim has no reason to believe that any witnesses will back them up should the matter proceed through HR or court. The victim may feel especially isolated, believing that their coworkers are all supportive of the harassment; the victim might not even recognize how inappropriate the conduct is, despite how awful it makes them feel.

Silence Hides Widespread Harassment

When no one says anything about the harassment they witness, the victims and witnesses may believe the incidents to be isolated. When victims and witnesses alike come forward to report inappropriate conduct, it’s much easier to unearth systemic problems and widespread harassment.

If you witness or experience harassment, there’s a very good chance that your experience is not unique. If you see harassment, take steps to end the culture of silence: Report the incident to HR, let the victim know you’re on their side, speak up to stop harassment while it’s happening, and if your employer refuses to respond appropriately, take your complaints to agencies outside the workplace. A seasoned workplace harassment attorney can help you decide which steps to take next.

Call a Knowledgeable Employment Law Attorney for Help With a Workplace Harassment Claim

For help protecting yourself and recovering compensation after experiencing sexual harassment or a hostile work environment in Southern California, call Ochoa & Calderón to discuss your case with a zealous and effective California labor and employment attorney. Call 951-901-4444 in Riverside or 844-401-0750 toll-free throughout Southern California.

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