Workplace harassment and abuse are hugely under-reported, and the problems are only made worse by the fact witnesses hardly ever speak up

workplace harassmentFairfax Media / Getty

  • A whitepaper released by Spot - an artificial intelligence tool where people can anonymously report abuse - showed that while 79% of 1,096 interviewed participants had seen an incident of workplace harassment or discrimination, 77% of them never reported it to human resources.
  • This is a stark reality for people who face these problems in the office.
  • Sergaya Krantz told Business Insider she believes she was the victim of intense bullying and harassment in her old job.
  • She claims her former manager spread a false rumor that she was mentally ill, which led to her being told to leave the office. She said she felt nobody in the office supported her, either taking part in the abuse or ignoring what was going on.
  • Psychologist Julia Shaw, cofounder of Spot, believes her team's artificial intelligence bot is the key to encouraging more people to report what happens to them and others.
  • There are many reasons people don't speak up, including fear of losing their job, and not wanting to interfere. But Shaw said it's up to everyone to realize the power they may have over others, and that harassment is not an individual problem, but a structural one.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

When Sergaya Krantz raised concerns about a coworker who wouldn't stop pretending she was a cat, she didn't realize it would start what she believed was a vicious campaign to remove her from the office.

Krantz worked at the UK branch of Bloomberg Tax, a department within Bloomberg Industry Group, in London until February 2018. The company is a small subsidiary of Bloomberg LP, with about 25 employees, that supplies legal tax information.

A former colleague of Krantz's confirmed this cat-like behavior to Business Insider, and Krantz said her problems at the company began when she spoke up about it and told a younger colleague not to pander to it anymore.

She believes this was when the meowing woman conspired against her, sparking a chain of events that culminated in her manager telling her to leave and spreading a lie that she was mentally ill.

"It had such horrific repercussions on my life at that time," she told Business Insider. "Even now if I see [my old colleagues] at tax conferences, they tend to run away from me. They literally run away or they look very embarrassed ... They know that I was treated badly, but they're scared to ask."

People worry about the consequences of speaking up

New research published by Spot - a company that created an AI bot for reporting misconduct- has shown witnesses of harassment hardly ever speak up. Spot cofounder Julia Shaw told Business Insider some of the psychological reasons for their silence and how it makes the hugely under-reported problem of harassment even worse.

The survey that collected personal stories from 1,096 participants from the US, UK, and Australia revealed a stark reality: While 79% of subjects had seen someone be the victim of an incident of harassment or discrimination at work, 77% of them never reported it to HR.

"I think I was expecting intuitively, to some extent, that witnesses wouldn't report because frankly I've witnessed things and not reported them, just like I've been the target and not reported them," Shaw told Business Insider. "So that's why we wanted to investigate this, because they could be a huge resource currently untapped."

Spot and Shaw have not investigated Krantz or Bloomberg and they did not form part of Spot's survey or whitepaper.

Witnesses cited many reasons why they didn't go to HR. The top one, at 34% of participants, was being worried about the consequences. Following that, 29% said they didn't want to intervene.

"Being worried about the consequences is mostly about yourself," she said. "For being worried about other people judging you or not believing you, or not promoting you because they perceive you to be a snitch or some other negative attribute."

SpotSpot

Business consultant and leadership coach Britt Andreatta told Business Insider most of us are not taught to question authority or speak our minds back when we're at school because it leads to punishment.

"This socialization carries into our adulthood and makes us naturally hesitant to speak up to anyone who has real or perceived power over us or our job or career," she said. "People need to feel safe in order to speak up, both physically safe and psychologically safe."

She added people risk being blamed and shamed as well as losing their jobs and careers if they go up against someone more powerful than them.

"This certainly was the case in Hollywood, is true at many universities, and was even at the core of the accident at Chernobyl," she said. "If you have seen others come forward and not be successful, there is even less incentive."

There's also the worry you'll make things worse

Not wanting to interfere, on the other hand, is more of a "benevolent" reason, Shaw said.

"[It] mostly comes from a good place," she said. "Where people think this isn't my story to tell. And the problem with that is by not wanting to interfere, or make things worse, usually what it seems is that people do nothing."

It's all very well saying you don't want to get involved in someone else's business, but you can always talk to the person and see if they are okay, Shaw said, rather than washing your hands of it and thinking it's not your problem.

Krantz said she felt like she had nobody to turn to within her company. There was no HR department in the UK office, and people seemed more likely to ignore the situation rather than try to help, she said.

She said she requested mediation with the coworker after she'd accepted another job offer as she wanted to sort things out before she left.

But rather than receiving help from her manager, she said she was told to leave the office because she had a "chemical imbalance" and didn't understand English people. Krantz is from Slovenia, but has lived in the UK since she was three.

"I got emails saying I was creating dramas in the office for attention and I needed to be removed from the office," she said. "I was actually apologizing for things and didn't know what I was apologizing for. When you're being bullied you don't realize until later. You think you're doing something wrong."

Krantz made a formal complaint in November 2018 after she had left the company, only to be told her claims were unfounded. In an email, seen by Business Insider, she was told by the data privacy and security director that her manager "acted appropriately and was motivated by genuine concern for your wellbeing" in removing her from the office. She was also told the comments were not "disseminated more broadly" and that her "complaints in this regard are unfounded."

When she repeatedly asked for the company to retract statements of her being mentally ill and for further investigation into the employees she said bullied her, she received a short response, also seen by Business Insider, telling her the company considered the matter "closed."

A Bloomberg representative told Business Insider they do not comment on these types of issues. But in a legal letter addressed to Krantz, seen by Business Insider, the company denied any wrongdoing and refuted her claims of harassment and discrimination. The company stated it takes allegations of harassment very seriously.

"[My manager] said I refused to accept my mind was deteriorating," Krantz said. "I said 'my doctor says I'm fine' but they refused to let me give them a doctor's note. And then this message spread around that I was mentally ill."

Gossiping makes the problem worse

Social contagion makes workplaces toxic, Shaw said, which is when people gossip and spread negative information about the company or an individual. Nearly half of respondents in the survey said they had told someone else when they'd witnessed harassment, but didn't tell HR.

"You get this sort of seeping of this negative toxic information and toxic situation throughout the organization and sometimes even outside and beyond the organisation, possibly to new recruits, possibly to the industry more generally," she said. "And this is has a potentially tremendously negative effect on the culture as a whole."

Krantz felt like she was being talked and theorized about constantly before she left her position at Bloomberg Tax. At one point, a male colleague yelled at Krantz across the room "have you taken your medication?" Krantz said.

"I said 'my doctor says I'm being bullied, actually,'" Krantz said. "And then he panicked and he ran to the managers."

Workplace harassmentvlada_maestro / Getty

Andreatta said there could also be tribal behavior at play when people talk amongst themselves, because it's a reaction to sensing danger.

"We are a tribal species so are biologically compelled to gather as much information as we can to assess the threat and figure out what to do about it," she said. "Sadly, in most workplaces, HR is not seen as a safe place to go, because they ultimately work for the company and their first priority is protecting the organization from litigation."

People don't want to think of their workplace as problematic

Witnesses sometimes end up feeling partially responsible for the harassment if they don't step in as soon as they see something. This guilt can be enough to stop them reporting it at all, Shaw said.

Humans are also prone to the belief that they are good people, she said. This means we don't like to consider that we've chosen to work somewhere people are harassed and abused, and are more likely to diminish or dismiss anything we see that challenges that view.

"What you're trying to do is you're trying to justify that your workplace isn't problematic, so that you can stay with status quo and feel good about your choice of workplace," Shaw said. "It's a completely protective mechanism where your brain is going, 'I don't want this to be true.'"

She said the only way to ensure the company actually is a good place to work is to have a healthy workplace culture.

"And the only way you're going to do that is by having appropriate mechanisms for reporting things when they inevitably occasionally go wrong," she said.

Harassment isn't an individual issue

Shaw believes that there needs to be a shift in the consequences of something being reported, too. She said humans have a tendency to pretend harassment and discrimination are something individuals do, and if those people are removed, the company will be fine.

"I think that's hugely problematic because that underestimates that all of us are capable of both being harassed or discriminated against, and harassing or discriminating against others," she said. "We need to stop pretending that this is an individual level problem and acknowledge that this is a structural issue."

She said everyone should be "benevolent with their power" and realize the harm they can do, intentionally or not, just by having authority over someone else. That power can be held in all sorts of ways, including position, race, and gender. Recognizing this can mean abuse is prevented earlier.

"Otherwise it becomes us versus them - us the good people and the good employees versus them the bad harassers," Shaw said. "And that's just not a good way of looking at the world."

Krantz said all she wanted was an apology from her old company. She said she can't let the situation go because someone else in the same position could have been severely damaged if they were more vulnerable than she was.

"I found it so degrading and so humiliating, my treatment in the office, that I just think it's wrong," she said. "I'm 45 now and I don't think my career will die as a result of this. I just don't think I can be at peace unless I speak up about it."

You can read the full report about witnessing workplace harassment here.

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