September 19th, 2013

Research: Explaining peer condemnation of targets of workplace bullying

WBI review of an academic research study:

Diekmann, K.A., Walker, S.D.S., Galinsky, A.D., & Tenbrunsel, A.E. (2012) Double victimization in the workplace: Why observers condemn passive victims of sexual harassment. Organization Science, 2012, 1-15.

A well practiced tendency of observers of workplace harassment, coworkers of the targeted person, is to declare that they themselves would have taken more action to stop the harassment than the victim did.

The researchers in this study call this prediction “forecasting,” and people claim they would do more than they actually do. They have an optimism bias, especially with respect to moral or socially desirable conduct. No one wants to admit they would not do “the right thing” when opportunities present themselves. And there is an equal underestimation of how likely they would be to yield to social pressure and self-interest.

A common consequence of such observer hubris is the subsequent condemnation of victims for failing to have acted — to resist, to confront, to report, to reverse the harassment. Of course, as WBI research shows, confrontation fails to stop the negative conduct and leads to retaliation of the victim which exacerbates the suffering.

Staying passive is the preferred choice of both sexual harassment victims and bullied targets. From their perspective, it is safer than alternatives. However, observers may interpret passivity as weakness. Thus, harassment victims are harmed twice over.

A difference between forecasting and actual actions occurs when explaining our own actions, too. When women were asked to imagine sexual harassment in a job interview (they would confront) contrasted with when they were actually harassed (not one acted as they had predicted they would). This is partly explained when predictions are made about events long in the future but circumstances are concrete and actions less feasible when the time to act arrives.

When observers condemn coworkers for inaction, the fundamental attribution error operates. That is, people focus on observable behaviors and do not (cannot) see less tangible pressures that situations create for others. We all tend to focus a disproportionate share of attention to the person’s personality because that is most salient to us. The FAE is behind all “blame the victim” explanations for events. Harassed individuals who do not act are often made responsible for their fate, despite the fact they never invited misery upon themselves.

Researchers Diekmann (at University of Utah), Walker (at Brigham Young), Galinsky (Northwestern) and Tenbrunsel (at Notre Dame) ran a series of five short experiments to initially demonstrate how overoptimistic forecasting errors affect evaluations of others then to explore how to reduce the levels of contempt held by observers for passive harassment victims.

Study 1.
Female students (average age 21) read a short description of another female student who interviewed for a research assistant job on campus. The male interviewer asked inappropriate questions (have a boyfriend? people find you desirable? important for women to wear bras to work?). According to the scenario, the applicant answered all the questions. She responded passively.

Of the 47 scenario readers, 30% said they would have stated that questions were inappropriate; 17% said they would have refused to answer; and 17% said they would have done the same as the “applicant.” A significant negative correlation surfaced between forecasted actions (how much they would have confronted the interviewer) and the overall impression of the applicant and the recommendation to hiire her. The scenario readers who thought they would bravely resist held the most contemptuous view of the applicant.

Study 2. Online participants were recruited, 81 women average age 35 years with an average of 8 + years of work experience. The same scenario as in Study 1 was used. The additional question asked how willing was the respondent to work with the applicant if she were hired. Again there was a negative (inverse) relationship between the more confrontation forecast (I would have done so much more) and overall impression and the recommendation to hire and their willingness to work with the applicant. That meant that they not only condemned the passive applicant but would also socially exclude her if hired.

Study 3. Again using female undergraduate students (n=59), participants read the scenario about the job interview used in both prior studies with the twist that they were asked to imagine there were the interviewee. Prior to reading the story, one-third of the group were asked to spend 2 minutes imagining how important it was for them to get that research assistant job. One-third spent 2 minutes imagining how important it was to get along with others. The remaining third did no reflection or imagining, they just read the scenario. To each inappropriate question the interviewer asked (see Study 1), they were told to “write how you think you would react, not how you think you should react.” They rated the likelihood of taking several different actions.

The act of reflecting on the importance of getting a job or getting along with others lowered the predictions (forecasts) of confronting the harasser. It made no difference if the motivation was getting the job or getting along. Simply thinking about situational pressures on a job applicant when responding as the job applicant herself reduced the optimism bias associated with predicting what a person would do.

Study 4. Female (n=52) undergraduate students were paid $10 to participate. The research design was made more complex by adding the variable of the job candidate’s response to the male interviewer (confront vs. did not confront) to the variable of imagining the importance of getting the job vs. not imagining. Prior to reading the scenario, half thought about getting a job. The scenario was read by all. The applicant was depicted as refusing to answer any of the inappropriate questions (confronted the interviewer) or as answering all three questions (did not confront, as in Studies 1 through 3). Overall impressions of the applicant were collected.

Applicants who confronted the interviewer made a more positive overall impression than passive applicants. Thinking about how important the interview is to getting a job, in other words, seeing the world through the lens of the applicant and understanding more her motivation, led to participants being significantly less likely to predict that they would confront the interviewer. Their predictions were more realistic and in line with what harassment victims do. Bridging the gap by imagining similarity with the applicant reduced condemnation. The impression of passive applicants improved the most when the consideration of the need for a job was added.

Study 5. Women (n=101) participants were recruited online, an average 43 yrs. old with 16 years work experience. This was the most realistic of all the studies. The sample was comprised of real workers. The researchers added a manipulation that tied the study into bullying. One-third of the women were asked to recall an instance when they had experienced intimidation (not sexual harassment) in the workplace that really upset them and had done “something about it” (took action). One-third remembered the intimidating experience when they did nothing. The remembering groups were given up to 10 minutes to recall events, to recall the motivations that led to either action or inaction and to write it all down.

An unrelated brief task separated the remembering phase from the reading of the same Study 1 scenario in which the applicant did not confront the interviewer. Ratings of overall impression of the applicant, how excellent a research assistant the applicant would be, and how strongly they would recommend hiring the applicant.

The most positive impressions of the applicant came from participants who remembered their own intimidation and who were passive themselves. The applicant was liked the least by those who had personal experience with intimidation but who had done something. Raters who were not asked to think about their own experiences gave intermediate impression scores.


Condemnation of passive sexual harassment victims by observers can be minimized, if not completely negated, by making observers aware of the situational pressures (the need to get a job) that provide the context for the “failure” by victims to confront harassers.

There are many limitations to the study including the use of work-inexperienced young students, the simplicity of the job interview scenario, and the use of a job interview as contrasted with harassment of an employee fully vested in her job (needing that job even more than an applicant). However, researchers did use some samples of older participants who did understand the workplace.

Another good decision by researchers was to include the task to remember instances when personally intimidated, not sexually harassed. That allows us readers to extrapolate the findings beyond the sterile confines of an experimental lab to the real world.

For us, advancing theory takes a back seat to understanding how this helps explain the daily workplace reality. We can better reduce our tendency to blame harassment victims when they apparently do little to defend themselves or to get out of their circumstances by imagining what they must be experiencing and feeling. And that is best done by remembering that we, too, have been on the receiving end of mistreatment, disrespect and intimidation. It was hard for us to act, so it must be for those we witness suffering at the hands of others.

The researchers wisely state that when coworkers mispredict by claiming that they would act differently than targeted individuals, they actually encourage their shame and guilt for not having fought back.

The researchers posit that organizations are weakened when coworkers, HR and managers condemn harassment victims. The authors suggest that training include coverage of the experiences of harassment victims to teach others how it feels to try to work in toxic, abusive work environments.


Diekmann, K.A., Walker, S.D.S., Galinsky, A.D., & Tenbrunsel, A.E. (2012) Double victimization in the workplace: Why observers condemn passive victims of sexual harassment. Organization Science, 2012, 1-15.


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This entry was posted on Thursday, September 19th, 2013 at 1:11 pm and is filed under Bullying-Related Research, Social/Mgmt/Epid Sciences, Tutorials About Bullying, WBI Education. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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