Hearing about one case of sexual harassment can poison our view of a company. We don’t see bad apples, we see rot in the roots of the tree. When we hear about a single sexual harassment case at a company, it’s enough to tank our perception about the company as a whole, according to new UCLA research highlighted in Harvard Business Review.
We see one case of sexual misconduct as a bigger culture problem
In online experiments with over 1,000 U.S. participants, the researchers split participants into different groups. Each group read up on a fake company, but some also heard unsavory details. For the group that read about a sexual harassment claim made by a female employee against her manager, this story stayed with them and negatively colored their perception of the company as a whole. These participants were more likely to think that there was deeper culture problem at play.
“A single sexual harassment claim can be enough to dramatically shape public perception of a company and elicit perceptions of structural unfairness,” the researchers write.
When we hear about harassment, we are more likely to think that the company is unfair to its employees, even compared to other transgressions we might hear are happening. The group that read about the harassment allegation judged the company as less fair than the group that did not hear about it. They even saw it as less fair than the group that heard the company had a case of financial misconduct. A case of fraud is easier for us to swallow as the result of one bad employee than a case of sexual harassment.
How can companies salvage their brand in the wake of sexual harassment? By taking the claim seriously. When participants heard that the company responded promptly and with consideration towards the victim, rather than with discouragement and suspicion, they were less likely to find the company to be an unfair place to work.