Published: Aug. 22, 2023

Some employee bystanders may brush it off while others are stuck wondering, ‘Am I next?’ according to new research from a CU Boulder business professor.

Overhead shot of a woman working in a messy space with her head in her hand.

Plenty can go awry in a workplace, but one of the most damaging events that harms employee morale and perception is mistreatment. And it’s not just the person targeted in the mistreatment who suffers negative effects: Like secondhand smoke, colleagues and bystanders experience wrongdoing vicariously, which can elicit just as strong or even stronger reactions than personal experiences with mistreatment.

A recent study examined why negative behaviors like discrimination, ostracism, incivility and harassment continue to occur in workplaces and found a potentially overlooked reason, according to Sabrina Volpone, an associate professor of organizational leadership at the Leeds School of Business and co-author of the study, published online in June 2023 in the Journal of Applied Psychology.  

The reason has to do with differing perceptions of workplace bystanders and how they see the event in relation to themselves.

Sabrina Volpone“The differing perceptions come from the idea that many forms of workplace mistreatment are subjective, leaving coworkers asking what really happened, which version of the event should they believe, and would this person really do something like that, after the mistreatment occurs,” Volpone said.

The researchers found that when people witness mistreatment or hear about it, they process and react to it in different ways, depending on their gender and if their gender is the same as the person who was mistreated.

The study shows that female bystanders or bystanders who are the same gender as the person who was mistreated react with higher levels of “identity threat,” which occurs when people perceive one or more of their social identities are under attack. This identity threat reaction can be emotional or cognitive.

Women and those similar in gender to the victim of mistreatment tend to have more emotion-focused reactions, leading bystanders to come to different conclusions about the mistreatment. 

Perceptions of mistreatment

“If you are similar to the victim, your emotional-focused reaction might look like, ‘Am I next?” Volpone said. “If you don’t have that similarity, it doesn’t register in the same way and you are more likely to process it cognitively. You don’t have the salience of the event affecting you in your own backyard. You might explain it away because it does not register as a threat in the same way.”

That cognitive-focused reaction can lead some bystanders to see the event as harmless or even fair, and this could be a reason mistreatment continues to be “startlingly prevalent in today’s workplaces,” according to the paper.

The lack of personally feeling threatened in a way that triggers emotion-focused processing may be why some bystanders perceive the overall organization to be rife with gendered mistreatment and unfairness after mistreatment occurs and why others do not make the same determination.   

The research, led by Volpone and Emily M. David of China Europe International Business School, and co-authored by Derek R. Avery of the University of Houston’s Bauer College of Business; Lars U. Johnson of the University of Texas at Arlington’s College of Business; and Loring Crepeau of the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute, involved three studies, including one on more than 8,000 employees who were a part of some 550 work teams.

The researchers also theorize that men’s and women’s perceptions of mistreatment in the workplace can impact whether they feel the company or organization as a whole is unjust.

“If I saw or heard a female reporting mistreatment or recounting it to a colleague, I all of a sudden find that very salient,” Volpone said. “If this continues and is acceptable in the workplace, it’s harder to explain the mistreatment away as a one-off occurrence, and I begin to think negatively about the climate of the overall organization. Those thoughts capture how people who are similar to the victim of the mistreatment process the mistreatment.”

The study isolated gender effects, but Volpone said the researchers are confident that the phenomenon would extend to race as well. They believe mistreatment would elicit the same kind of threat response in other disadvantaged groups in the workplace.

A takeaway for managers is to be aware of this gender similarity bias. 

“If you’re an individual manager and someone makes you aware of events that could be considered mistreatment, understand that your similarity to that person could affect your decision-making and could affect how you take action and whether you take action,” Volpone said.

Instead of dismissing workplace mistreatment as a one-off event, companies can benefit from providing more organizational support. 

“Mistreatment needs to be taken care of and addressed as soon as possible,” Volpone said. “If and how a manager responds sends important signals. It has a big spillover effect that can affect how employees think of the entire workplace, not just the coworker who was the perpetrator of the mistreatment.”