Moral Foundations, Himpathy, and Punishment Following Organizational Sexual Misconduct Allegations

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Author Information : Samantha J. Dodson, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of British Columbia, Sauder School of Business
Rachael Dailey Goodwin, Assistant Professor of Management, Syracuse University, Whitman School of Management.
Kristina Diekmann, Professor of Management, Angus T. Shearer Professor of Ethics, University of Utah, Eccles School of Business
Jesse Graham, Associate Professor of Management, George S. Eccles Chair in Business Ethics, University of Utah, Eccles School of Business

Year of Publication : Organization Science, forthcoming Dec. 2022 or Jan. 2023

Summary of Findings : In the workplace and in society, certain moral concerns (i.e., authority, loyalty, and purity) can give rise to himpathy – excessive sympathy toward the alleged perpetrator and anger toward the accusing victim.

Research Questions : Why do some people treat victims of sexual harassment worse than others? How do peoples’ moral concerns affect the way they judge #MeToo victims and other employees who come forward with sexual harassment allegations? What can managers do to reduce the negative consequences for accusing victims?

What we know : Workplace sexual misconduct perpetuates costly gender inequality at work and in society. Efforts to encourage reporting of gender-based discrimination (e.g., sexual misconduct) at work have increased (e.g., Carlson 2017); however, victims who report sexual misconduct in organizations often face significant sanctions for doing so (Bergman et al. 2002, Hart 2019). Women who make sexual misconduct complaints often experience organizational and third-party retaliation for reporting misconduct (involuntary transfer, poor performance appraisals, job loss, ostracism; Atwater et al. 2018, Dockterman 2018), which can take a severe toll on their well-being (Bergman et al. 2002, Dobbin and Kalev 2019). In contrast, men accused of engaging in sexual misconduct rarely experience transfers or terminations (Bastian et al. 1996, Cortina and Berdahl 2008, Dobbin and Kalev 2019) and are less likely to be terminated or resign than their victims (Streatfeild et al. 2019). Further, termination of those accused of sexual misconduct may not prevent perpetrators from gaining power in other organizations (e.g., Elliott and Tobin 2018). Although there are recent high-profile cases in the media of men accused of sexual misconduct facing significant penalties, suggesting that organizational responses to sexual harassment allegations have changed following the #MeToo Movement, most of the accused escaped repercussions altogether or recovered from this career setback within a few short years (Mahoy and Farhi 2022). Our paper helps explain one reason this may be happening by showing that some people – including managers – may be morally biased against sexual harassment victims and in favor of accused perpetrators. Our work was inspired by courageous women, like Christine Blasey-Ford, who publicly came forward with #MeToo accusations, despite the ‘himpathetic’ individuals they were likely to encounter.

Novel Findings : We show that third parties – or people like you and me who watched the #MeToo Movement happen – evaluate individuals involved in #MeToo claims based on their moral values. These moral concerns can bias our emotional responses, credibility judgments, and motivations to resolve injustice either in favor of the accused or the accuser. The moral values of authority, loyalty, purity can lead to less support for the victim and more support for the perpetrator.

Novel Methodology : Across five studies (total N = 5,413) we utilized archival, field, and vignette research designs. We examined responses to sexual misconduct accusations ranging in severity across several industries. Twitter data for the first study was scraped to capture responses made during the #MeToo movement and then coded for moral language. We also collected data on September 27, 2018, the day of the sexual assault hearing between Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford. For another study we used a critical incident field technique to capture third-party reactions to accusing victims and alleged perpetrators in reports of organizational sexual misconduct in their workplaces. In addition, the final three studies in our paper were pre-registered through the Center for Open Science (www.cos.io) following the latest methodological prescriptions for open science.

Implications for Practice : It is noteworthy that the means across all five studies indicate that female victims generally garner more sympathy and less anger than male perpetrators when looking across participants and not focusing solely on those who highly ascribe to binding values. Such findings are heartening and indicate that progress is being made. However, our findings suggest that a small, yet influential, subset of organizational employees is prone to hostile moral reactions toward victims and support of perpetrators. The present research indicates the willingness of some to sympathize with the perpetrator produces additional harm to the victim and potentially allows for misconduct to continue, which may explain why victims who choose to report misconduct remain worse off. These reactions could lead to costly outcomes for the organization. For instance, investigations revealed a network of complicit third parties who explicitly concealed and enabled Harvey Weinstein’s behavior, contributing to $25 million in damages and settlement fees for the now-bankrupt Weinstein Company. To combat the possibility of employees protecting those accused of sexual misconduct, we recommend building investigative committees with employees of diverse perspectives to prevent any one person who may feel sympathetic to the accused from overly influencing decisions regarding disciplinary action. We also recommend protections for these committee members (e.g., anonymity, legal immunity) to prevent himpathetic leaders from exerting pressure to prevent committee members from acting impartially.

Research highlights the importance of having effective organizational and leader responses to sexual misconduct to minimize the negative consequences for victims (Goodwin et al. 2020, Murry et al. 2001) and to prevent future sexual misconduct in the organization (Offermann and Malamut 2002). The results of Study 5 show that authority figures (e.g., managers) can contribute to greater discrimination against misconduct victims when they derogate the accusing victim. As such, our work is of value to practitioners in understanding how gender discrimination can be perpetuated following sexual misconduct allegations if managers do not respond appropriately. Specifically, we highlight an action practitioners must avoid (i.e., framing the victim as disloyal) to ensure they do not exacerbate victimization when a victim decides to come forward. Ideally, organizations should take care to protect the confidentiality of sexual misconduct claims. However, when this is not possible, we recommend organizational leaders either support the victim or take a neutral stance to avoid facilitating premature, inequitable social consequences toward either party involved in the claim.

Implications for Policy: It is noteworthy that the means across all five studies indicate that female victims generally garner more sympathy and less anger than male perpetrators when looking across participants and not focusing solely on those who highly ascribe to binding values. Such findings are heartening and indicate that progress is being made. However, our findings suggest that a small, yet influential, subset of organizational employees is prone to hostile moral reactions toward victims and support of perpetrators. The present research indicates the willingness of some to sympathize with the perpetrator produces additional harm to the victim and potentially allows for misconduct to continue, which may explain why victims who choose to report misconduct remain worse off. These reactions could lead to costly outcomes for the organization. For instance, investigations revealed a network of complicit third parties who explicitly concealed and enabled Harvey Weinstein’s behavior, contributing to $25 million in damages and settlement fees for the now-bankrupt Weinstein Company. To combat the possibility of employees protecting those accused of sexual misconduct, we recommend building investigative committees with employees of diverse perspectives to prevent any one person who may feel sympathetic to the accused from overly influencing decisions regarding disciplinary action. We also recommend protections for these committee members (e.g., anonymity, legal immunity) to prevent himpathetic leaders from exerting pressure to prevent committee members from acting impartially.
Research highlights the importance of having effective organizational and leader responses to sexual misconduct to minimize the negative consequences for victims (Goodwin et al. 2020, Murry et al. 2001) and to prevent future sexual misconduct in the organization (Offermann and Malamut 2002). The results of Study 5 show that authority figures (e.g., managers) can contribute to greater discrimination against misconduct victims when they derogate the accusing victim. As such, our work is of value to practitioners in understanding how gender discrimination can be perpetuated following sexual misconduct allegations if managers do not respond appropriately. Specifically, we highlight an action practitioners must avoid (i.e., framing the victim as disloyal) to ensure they do not exacerbate victimization when a victim decides to come forward. Ideally, organizations should take care to protect the confidentiality of sexual misconduct claims. However, when this is not possible, we recommend organizational leaders either support the victim or take a neutral stance to avoid facilitating premature, inequitable social consequences toward either party involved in the claim.

Implications for Society: In all, we hope that our examination of how employees’ differential moral values exert influence over their perceptions of and responses to organizational injustice will provide valuable insights regarding complex organizational and societal issues.

Implications on Research: We believe that our model may extend to other types of mistreatment alleged to have occurred by women, minorities, and members not part of the dominant in-group, including discrimination, sexism, and racism. Future research exploring intuitive third-party perceptions of misdeeds in other contexts will be necessary to identify whether the relationships we propose generalize to contexts besides sexual misconduct. Specifically, we encourage future research examining the role of certain moral foundations (authority, loyalty, purity) in response to allegations regarding mistreatment that maintains systemic forms of oppression. We also suggest that justice researchers incorporate other moral values into their models for more precise theorizing.

Full Citations : Dodson, S.J., Goodwin, R.D., Diekmann, K.D., Graham, J., (in press). Moral Foundations, Himpathy, and Punishment Following Organizational Sexual Misconduct Allegations. Organization Science, forthcoming.

Abstract : We build on deontic justice and moral foundations theories to shed light on responses to sexual misconduct at work by proposing a model that explains why some third parties punish accusing victims and support alleged perpetrators. We theorize that when third parties are given conflicting “he said, she said” information, they intuitively evaluate organizational injustice based on moral values. We further theorize that binding moral foundations (loyalty, authority, purity) give rise to sympathy toward men accused of sexual misconduct and anger toward female accusers. Across five studies (total N = 5,413) utilizing archival, field, and vignette designs, we examined third-party responses to sexual misconduct accusations ranging in severity across several industries. Third-party endorsement of binding moral foundations was linked to increased perpetrator-directed sympathy and victim-directed anger (Studies 1-4). These emotions jointly mediated the relationship between binding values and credibility perceptions of the victim and the perpetrator (Studies 2 and 3). Moreover, victim credibility was negatively associated with social sanctions and punishment severity levied toward the accusing victim, and perpetrator credibility was negatively associated with the same punishment outcomes for the alleged perpetrator (Studies 3 and 4). In Study 5, we found that managers framing the accusing victim as disloyal exacerbated negative judgments and emotions toward the victim and positive judgments and emotions toward the perpetrator for individuals who highly ascribe to binding moral foundations. We discuss the theoretical contributions and practical implications of moral concerns on third parties’ emotions, judgments, and motivations to punish actors involved in sexual misconduct allegations.

Rachael Goodwin
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