In the News and Trending: Moral Foundations May Cloud Responses to Organizational Sexual Misconduct Allegations

Rachael Goodwin

“In the News and Trending” includes the perspective of Whitman professors on timely issues impacting business. Stated wording and opinions are those of the author.

Rachael Goodwin is an assistant professor of management at the Whitman School. She has been published in Organizational Science, Psychology of Women’s Quarterly and the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Her research investigates workplace issues related to expected power, managerial social cognition, gender and leadership.


Speaking up about sexual misconduct takes courage.

Why, then, are victims not regularly rewarded for their bravery with outpourings of support and swift justice for their perpetrators?

Take Christine Blasey Ford, a professor who in 2018 accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct when they were both in high school. Even after Ford’s public testimony, Kavanaugh was confirmed to the lifetime appointment, while his accuser found herself receiving death threats and hate mail.

This is only one of the most prominent cases of “he-said-she-said” debated publicly over the past few years. As the #MeToo movement has been brought to light since the hashtag went viral in late 2017, sexual harassment and abuse are pervasive. In the United States, four out of five women and two out of five men have experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault in their lifetime, according to one survey.

Many of these incidents take place in the workplace. But while some 60% of women have experienced unwanted sexual attention on the job, the vast majority of these incidents are neither reported internally (70%) nor pursued legally (85%).

And no wonder. Even though efforts have been made in the past years to protect victims of sexual misconduct in the workplace, in practice, women who file reports of harassment often experience backlash that takes a real toll on their careers — including through involuntary transfers, poor performance appraisals, job loss and ostracism — and personal well-being.

Contrary to the impression some highly publicized cases may give, accused perpetrators, on the other hand, typically face minimal repercussions. They are usually not transferred or fired; even if they are, they may regain power in other organizations. Indeed, their victims are much more likely to be terminated or resign.

My colleagues and I got curious about the reasons why some people feel sympathy toward the alleged perpetrator and anger toward their accused victims. How can we help managers understand the mechanisms behind employees’ different reactions to the accusations and assist them in handling such situations in a way that prevents exacerbating the conflict?

Across five studies — which included analyzing thousands of tweets from the height of the #MeToo movement and conducting an online survey regarding Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony — we found that people apply their particular set of moral concerns to individuals involved in conflicting narratives such as “he-said-she-said.” In other words, our moral concerns can bias our emotional responses, credibility judgments and motivations to resolve injustice either for the accused or the accuser.

Some moral values — strong respect for authority, intense in-group loyalty, purity — are considered “binding” concerns that tend to unite individuals into collectives. People who favor these may highly value the stability and longevity of their organization and feel them to be under threat from the person launching the accusation, who becomes, in their eyes, more offensive than the alleged perpetrator. It was eye-opening for us to see that this “himpathy” also triggers perceptions in the observer that the victim is less credible. As a result, they are less likely to want to punish the perpetrator.

So what can managers do when they find themselves dealing with a “he-said-she-said” situation?

For one, we hope our research will lead more organizations and managers to reflect on their values and biases and how these might impact their responses. One way to get started is to take a quick survey at to learn more about the moral foundations you and your work team may adhere to.

Secondly, our fifth study showed that managers talking about the victim negatively (as disloyal) can exacerbate the “himpathy” felt by individuals with binding values and lead to greater negative social consequences for the victim. We recommend avoid making any negative comments in the wake of a sexual harassment allegation and seek a neutral third party to conduct the investigation.

Finally, if you use investigative committees, consider involving employees of diverse perspectives to prevent any one person with sympathies for the accused from overly influencing the process and offer protections (e.g. anonymity, legal immunity) to committee members to avoid undue pressure from “himpathetic” leaders.

Thereby, we hope it will become more likely that the immense courage of women who come forward about the sexual harassment they have experienced will be justly rewarded.

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