What Happens to Witnesses of Workplace Sexual Harassment?

Topic(s): Counter-Productive Work Behavior, fairness, gender
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology
Article: Who Speaks Up When Harassment is in the Air? A Within-Person Investigation of Ambient Harassment and Voice Behavior at Work
Authors: A.S. Gabriel, N. Chawla, C.C. Rosen, Y.E. Lee, J. Koopman, E.M. Wong
Reviewed by: Katherine Facteau

Sexual and gender-based harassment still pervades the workplace today. Research finds that experiencing this mistreatment results in a host of negative outcomes for the targets of this behavior. However, less research has explored ambient sexual harassment, which occurs when bystanders overhear harassment and feel affected by it. New research (Gabriel et al., 2023) explores how witnessing sexual harassment can invoke feelings of fear and anger. In turn, this can influence employees’ willingness to speak up, for example, to bring up a concern or offer a suggestion.


The authors conducted two studies. The first study presented scenarios where coworkers were making disparaging comments about a new female hire (compared to a neutral condition). Results indicated that reading about this ambient harassment created feelings of fear and anger. The researchers also found that anger led to intentions to report the fictitious incident to HR.

Study 2 used daily surveys to examine employees’ real experiences. They found that witnessing harassment led to fear, which in turn decreased the likelihood that employees would speak up. However, anger led to employees being more willing to speak up to point out their concerns. Interestingly, employees were more likely to experience anger and fear when their organization had a culture of tolerance for sexual harassment because they felt that (a) nothing would be done and (b) it could keep happening.

Lastly, gender played an interesting role. Men actually had stronger emotional reactions than women to ambient harassment, and women were more likely to speak up when they were in supportive organizations that had low tolerance for harassment.


First, organizations should examine the extent to which they tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace. Taking claims seriously and making statements that harassment is not tolerated could create a culture of support for their employees. Further, since men had strong reactions to witnessing harassment, interventions could target how to channel those emotions into being effective allies to women. Lastly, the results highlight that women are more likely to speak up when they perceive their organizations as supportive, thus, it is crucial to believe women and make them feel like they can come forward if they have witnessed harassment.


Gabriel, A. S., Chawla, N., Rosen, C. C., Lee, Y. E., Koopman, J., & Wong, E. M. (2024). Who speaks up when harassment is in the air? A within-person investigation of ambient harassment and voice behavior at work. Journal of Applied Psychology, 109(1), 39–60.

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