Sexual Harassment at Workplace: The Contributors and Mute Spectators

Sexual Harassment at Workplace: The Contributors and Mute Spectators

The world suffers a lot. Not because of the violence of bad people, but because of the silence of good people – Napoleon Bonaparte

When a person stands up against sexual harassment, they stand up for all others. The question is – do others stand up in their support? Unfortunately, in some cases, the answer is, No. Besides undergoing the trauma of sexual harassment, the most squeamish feeling lingering in a survivor’s mind is about those who in spite of being aware of the truth did not support in such fight for justice, instead, opposed and created hurdles.

In the context of a workplace, this article aims to explain certain factors contributing to cases of the sexual harassment. While there may be various examples of sexual harassment at a workplace, the case which is most common and is discussed here in detail is the rather typical kind that surfaces most often i.e. “junior harassed by a senior in power”.

The intention of this article is not to villainize all office colleagues of the survivor but to set out how, directly or indirectly, certain colleagues and office management knowingly or unknowingly contribute to making the workplace environment conducive to acts of sexual harassment and how most employees become mute spectators to the same. The various types of colleagues in an office and their contribution by way of acts and omissions before, during, and after the incidents of sexual harassment, are being discussed below:

  1. The clique: As the saying goes “Birds of the same feather flock together” this is the type where several individuals at office may display common or similar behaviour such as objectifying their co-workers, ogling, stalking, laying bets on the colour of the colleague`s undergarments, discussing physical attributes and displaying similar behaviour despite knowing about the visible discomfort displayed by the colleague who is being targeted. These are also the individuals who enjoy or remain silent spectators of such behaviour being displayed by a member of their ‘clique’ or encourage them to actively participate in such behaviour.
  2. The juniors who act as the senior says: This is the type where the senior influences their junior colleagues to isolate an individual by virtue of their position within the organization. The isolated individual may be left with no one to help them in office work or even to emotionally support them. Isolation from others becomes an ideal situation for the senior to further harass. This is a textbook example of a case of “hostile work environment”.
  3. The ambitious colleagues: There are some ambitious employees who want to climb the ladder to success for money, power and fame, and do not mind keeping their morals and ethics aside in this quest for success. Despite knowing the harassment and ill treatment meted out, in order to bring themselves in the good books of the senior, they take the initiative of creating ideal situations for the senior to further harass the junior. In return, the senior helps them with promotions, increased salaries and perks etc.
  4. The wanton ones: There are employees who mistake an office for a social club and by their inappropriate behaviour convert the formal office setting into a casual one. There is complete failure on their part to maintain office decorum. The promiscuity of some may make the senior expect all other employees to be promiscuous too and welcome recipients of lascivious behaviour. Thus, non-willingness to spend time, continuously talk or chat post office hours, or unnecessarily going out for meetings or declining dates might not effectively get the message across that the individual is not interested thereby leading to further proposals, or branding the individual as regressive or overly conservative etc. eventually leading to creation of hostile work environment.
  5. Those who stir up: These are individuals who encourage or challenge others to woo a fellow colleague in the name of ‘fun’ or ‘friendly banter’ when neither of them may be interested in such banter or in each other. However, sometimes, under the colleagues’ influence or peer pressure or to satisfy their own ego, people do end up taking such challenges not realising that they may be completely breaching another person’s personal boundaries, leading to inappropriate behaviour and / or offending them.
  6. Those who want to settle scores: There are some employees who may be aware of sexual harassment being meted out to an individual, but since they do not have a good relationship with them, they choose to either stay quiet and not offer any help or create rumours in office about them, gossip or assassinate their character as a method of settling personal scores.
  7. The scared and silent ones: There are certain employees who know everything about the sexual harassment being meted out but do not have the courage to speak the truth for various reasons. The most common reason being that they are scared of retaliation as they fear losing their job, future career prospects being hampered and the deleterious effect this shall have on their family and dependants. Most of the employees who know the truth may privately support the individual but will eventually hesitate from coming forward publically in support. For an individual being on the receiving end, a quote by Dr Martin Luther King Jr becomes very relevant “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
  8. The threatened ones: These are sometimes employees who have the courage to speak the truth and may also openly support. However, they are threatened with dire consequences either by management or by the senior. As a result, they don’t offer any help for the fear of losing their job and to save their life, limb and mental health.
  9. The insensitive management: Albert Einstein once said, “The world is a dangerous place not because of those who do evil but because of those who look on and do nothing.” This is very relevant for the management as sometimes, they turn a blind eye despite being aware of the sexual harassment. This could happen due to a variety of reasons ranging from superior position of the senior and the years of experience they bring in, easy availability and replacement of junior employees, general sense of complacency etc.
  10. The flock mentality ones: These are the ones who follow what the majority says or does. They do not have a mind of their own as they believe in following the herd. They believe that the majority is always right and they always participate with the larger group, without applying their mind to the issue before them. As passive and mute spectators, they don’t offer any help even if they were witness to incidents of sexual harassment.
  11. The judgmental ones: These are the ones who, amongst other things, judge what an individual wears, drinks or eats, where the individual was spotted over the weekend, their marital status etc. These colleagues believe that the individual ‘invited’ sexual harassment and even ‘deserved’ it. Their unhealthy discussion and views cause a lot of reputational damage to the individual leading them to also get affected by these views and go through emotional turmoil. This may further result in self-blame and doubting their own demeanour, actions and experience.
  12. The party changers: These ones initially start off as supporters but later change their stand either due to peer pressure, change of attitude, out of fear or disagreement with the individual or other reasons. The reason behind their change in stance may be manifold but it always has the same detrimental effect on the individual as they feel even more alone when one of their few supporters leaves their side.
  13. Those whose silence is purchased: An organization to save its own reputation would do all that is required to be done to muzzle dissent against the senior and the office management. Thus, they buy out the colleagues who have material information and evidence supporting the claim of the individual for cash or kind, making it even more difficult for them to prove their case. After all, it is rightly said that, “actions speak louder than words
  14. Just for fun types: These are the ones who are the mischief makers, the trouble makers, the matchsticks, the ones from whom everyone should be careful. They contribute by fabricating stories, exaggerating facts, manipulating colleagues and may also use various tools and techniques such as emotional blackmailing, ego massages, using social connections and taking advantage of power equations to add fuel to fire just for fun and complicate matters at office.

In conclusion, we can say that the people and the culture of a workplace matter. Organizational culture means and includes the core values, ideals which the employees live by. Everything that the organization does is a representation and an embodiment of its values. It is the people and the culture of the workplace that is a harbinger of all that is in store for everyone working there. An organization that encourages an atmosphere of sexual harassment or does not address sexual harassment cases seriously conveys that it is an unethical place to work in. A workplace that violates, harasses and fails to protect an individual`s dignity is morally bankrupt. Any workplace that is morally bankrupt, by the laws of nature, is bound to go financially bankrupt or kaput in some other sense and eventually all employees could face a situation where they lose their livelihood, sooner than expected.

Hence, it is imperative that organizations understand their responsibilities and conduct regular programs for their employees, managers, senior management etc. so that slowly and gradually they start understanding the sensitivities around this subject and eventually be part of creating a healthy workplace which is diverse and inclusive in nature. After all, nobody wins in a toxic workplace!

Please note that this article has been written by an individual aggrieved of sexual harassment at workplace and wishes to write anonymously.

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