Networks of complicity: social
networks and sex harassment
Rowe School of Business, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada
Minette E. Drumwright
University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, USA, and
Kenneth William Foster
Rowe School of Business,
Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada
Purpose –The purpose of this paper is to explore the question of why sex harassment persists in
organizations for prolonged periods –often as an open secret.
Design/methodology/approach –In-depth interviews were conducted with 28 people in diverse
organizations experiencing persistent sex harassment. Data were analyzed using standard qualitative methods.
Findings –The overarching finding was that perpetrators were embedded in networks of complicity that
were central to explaining the persistence of sex harassment in organizations. By using power and
manipulating information, perpetrators built networks that protected them from sanction and enabled their
behavior to continue unchecked. Networks of complicity metastasized and caused lasting harm to victims,
other employees and the organization as a whole.
Research limitations/implications –The authors used broad, open-ended questions and guided
introspection to guard against the tendency to ask for information to confirm their assumptions, and the
authors analyzed the data independently to mitigate subjectivity and establish reliability.
Practical implications –To stop persistent sex harassment, not only must perpetrators be removed, but
formal and informal ties among network of complicity members must also be weakened or broken, and
victims must be integrated into networks of support. Bystanders must be trained and activated to take
positive action, and power must be diffused through egalitarian leadership.
Social implications –Understanding the power of networks in enabling perpetrators to persist in their
destructive behavior is another step in countering sex harassment.
Originality/value –Social network theory has rarely been used to understand sex harassment or why it persists.
Keywords Social networks, Perpetrators, Bystanders, Sex harassment
Paper type Research paper
Sex harassment is a prevalent and persistent organizational phenomenon despite the many
efforts of legislators, scholars and managers (Cortina and Berdahl, 2008; Tenbrunsel et al.,
2019). This disheartening reality has been documented by widespread press coverage of sex
harassment in Hollywood (e.g. Harvey Weinstein), newsrooms (e.g. Matt Lauer), government
(e.g. Roy Moore), sports (e.g. Marshall Faulk) and the Catholic priesthood (e.g. Cardinal
George Pell). Not only is sex harassment persistent and prevalent, it is often ignored as an
open secret, tacitly supported and hidden (Almukhtar et al., 2018). It harms victims and
organizations in deep and lasting ways (Cortina and Berdahl, 2008; Fitzgerald, 1993).
The #MeToo movement highlighted not only the prevalence of sex harassment, but also
the difficulty of ending it (MacKinnon, 2019). Sex harassment research is extensive and rich,
but its focus often has been on why sex harassment between a perpetrator and a victim
occurs rather than on why it persists. Furthermore, while the relationship between the
Equality, Diversity and Inclusion:
An International Journal
© Emerald Publishing Limited
Received 1 April 2019
Revised 30 August 2019
13 October 2019
Accepted 29 October 2019
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
The authors thank their informants for sharing their stories with them, and they thank Paul Cun-
ningham, H.W. Perry, Jr, Peggy Stockdale and three anonymous reviewers for their insightful com-
ments and constructive suggestions for improvement.
perpetrator and the victim has been studied extensively, less attention has been paid to the
web of relationships surrounding the two central actors. The purpose of this research is to
address these gaps in research.
Sex harassment is a term that extends traditional definitions of sexual harassment (Berdahl,
2007). Sex harassment is defined as “harassment based on sex –behavior that derogates,
demeans, or humiliates an individual based on that individual’s sex”(Berdahl, 2007, p. 641).
It encompasses harassment driven by both sexual desire and gender-based norms.
Sex harassment is often intertwined with other types of inappropriate conduct such as
incivility, microaggression, bullying, ridicule, work sabotage, physical threats, vandalism,
slander and ostracism (Berdahl and Raver, 2011). It is typically embedded in a larger context
of disrespect (Lim and Cortina, 2005). The same perpetrator may engage in multiple forms of
bad behavior, or multiple perpetrators may behave inappropriately. As such, sex harassment
may not only involve a dyadicrelationship between a perpetrator and a victim, but it may also
involve interactions among multiple individuals.
Considerable research and theoretical development has focused on the antecedents of sex
harassment to explain why it occurs (O’Leary-Kelly et al., 2009), but it has not fully addressed
why it persists. For example, sex harassment occurs because of the following phenomena:
sex-role spillover (i.e. inappropriate carry over of sex-based behavior to the workplace; Gutek
and Morasch, 1982); the contact hypothesis (i.e. problems arising from the contact of men and
women in the workplace; Gutek et al., 1990); the power-dominance explanation (i.e. unequal
power across men and women in the workplace and society; Cleveland and Kerst, 1993);
organizational influences (i.e. gender domination by men and a toxic organizational culture;
Fitzgerald et al., 1995) and aggressive work behavior (i.e. sex harassment as goal-directed
behavior; Berdahl, 2007). Although the extant research is rich and varied, it does not fully
explain how or why a toxic organizational climate that does not take sex harassment seriously
develops, or why it persists when it is damaging to the organization. In addition, the existing
theoretical approaches may not fully consider the role of third parties (e.g. bystanders) in either
explicitly or implicitly condoning the behavior of the perpetrator. Social network theory may
provide further insights into these phenomena.
Social network theory
Social network theory focuses on the role of social relationships in transmitting information
and influencing attitudes and behavior (Granovetter, 1985). Social relations influence how
individuals act in organizations, and sex harassment involves social relationships. While a
perpetrator and a victim are central, they are embedded in an organization’s wider structure
of relationships (Brass et al., 1998; Cortina et al., 2017).
Social network theory’s concept of “embeddedness”asserts that social influence –the
desire to develop and maintain social relations –often dominates institutional and moral
considerations to perpetuate the benefits of social connections. Personal relationships and the
organization’s structure of social relations can generate trust and discourage or increase
malfeasance depending on who is trusted (Granovetter, 1985). For example, the desire to
continue past relationships may lead one to overlook another’s questionable behavior when it
seems out of character. Embeddedness is a lens to look deeper into the organizational context
to understand members of an organization who may –through action or inaction –be
complicit, complacent or ignorant about sex harassment.
Organizational relationships involve different types of interpersonal connections or
“social network ties”(Granovetter, 1985). These connections may be “strong”ties that create
obligations, enforce organizational norms and restrict information flow, or “weak”ties
that provide access to novel opportunities and information (Burt, 2000a; Granovetter, 1973).
The ability to draw on the resources and support of others in the network is referred to as
“tie activation”(Smith et al., 2012).
Social connections and ties are dynamic and may fluctuate with changes in organizational
circumstances (Hurlbert et al., 2000). When there are few interpersonal ties, a “structural hole”
exists in a network (Burt, 1992). Individuals who can create ties to span structural holes
become brokers who gain an advantage relative to their peers by accessing resources,
connecting others or combining information (Burt, 1992).
“Contagion”and “groupthink”are concepts related to embeddedness. Because people are
embedded in social relationships, attitudes, behaviors and norms can spread rapidly in an
“infectious”manner (Granovetter, 1978; Jackson, 2010). This diffusion of shared perspectives
is referred to as “contagion.”Groupthink arises when members accept the group’s reasoning,
avoid expressing individual opinions and interpret information in a positive way that
supports the group’s assessments of events. It has been used to explain negative
organizational outcomes in many contexts including the space shuttle Challenger disaster
(Esser and Lindoerfer, 1989).
Social networks reflect and create power and status. The organizational hierarchy results in
power differences (Brass and Burkhardt, 1993), and the organization’s formal structure enables
and constrains individuals’opportunities to connect or form ties with others (Kleinbaum et al.,
2013). “Network centrality”is a concept related to power and status. It emerges from the number
(density) and structure of ties. High (or low) centrality may result from the formal hierarchy or
from the informal or emergent patterns of interactions among individuals (Gulati and Puranam,
2009). A central position in a network typically enables an individual to understand the
network,whichisreferredtoas“network cognition”(Krackhardt, 1987). It, along with the
number of ties, can be sources of power.
Social networks provide members with access to resources and opportunities (Coleman, 1988)
and expose them to social norms, interpersonal loyalties and expectations and moral obligations
(Pescosolido, 1992; Wellman and Worley, 1990). Social network theory holds promise as a theory
to address the question of why sex harassment persists in many organizations.
Qualitative methods such as in-depth interviews are useful when the research goal is to
understand complex interactions and deeply embedded perceptions, beliefs, and values, and
when researchers cannot be sure what interpretation, norm, affect or rule is guiding
individuals (Braybrooke, 1965; McCracken, 1988). Persistent sex harassment is a phenomenon
in which the complexities, subtleties and perceptions of various organizational members must
be examined, so in-depth interviews were conducted. In-depth interviews are different from
highly structured survey research interviews (McCracken, 1988). While the latter are useful
for predicting behavior and generalizing to a population, in-depth interviews are designed to
ascertain the informant’s understanding and definition of the situation. They encourage the
informant to structure the account of the situation and allow the informant to reveal his or her
view of what is relevant (McCracken, 1988; Strauss and Corbin, 2015).
Informants for in-depth interviews need to be selected based on the knowledge they have
or the position they occupy that is relevant to the phenomenon being studied (Hochschild,
2009). Informants were recruited because they had worked in organizations where sex
harassment had persisted. They were recruited using various methods. The researchers read
reports of sex harassment (e.g. press coverage, legal investigations) and then contacted
individuals who had been involved. The researchers also contacted people within their
personal networks whom they suspected had experienced sex harassment or worked in
organizations in which sex harassment had persisted. The researchers also used snowballing
(Moriarty, 1983). At the end of each interview, they asked informants if they would refer them
to others who had worked in organizations in which sex harassment had persisted.
Interviews were conducted with 28 informants –18 women and 10 men. In total, 16 were US
based, and 12 were Canada based. Some informants described multiple cases of persistent sex
harassment. In all, 37 cases were described. Informants were victims in 20 of the cases, and
bystanders in 17 cases. The cases were drawn from diverse sectors: business, government,
higher education, health, journalism, the military and nonprofits. The organizations ranged in
size from four employees to almost 200,000. Of the 37 cases, nine occurred in organizations with
less than 500 employees, and eight occurred in organizations with between 500 and 5,000
employees. Nine cases occurred in organizations with between 5,001 and 10,000 employees, and
11 cases occurred in organizations with more than 10,000 employees.
Table I describes informants and perpetrators –gender, role, organizational position,
power of victims and bystanders relative to the perpetrator and type of knowledge of sex
harassment. First-hand knowledge indicates that the informants had observed or
experienced sex harassment themselves; second-hand knowledge conveys that a victim or
someone who witnessed sex harassment told them, and general knowledge indicates that
the informants knew about sex harassment from hearsay. In Table I, the term “perpetrator”
refers to primary perpetrators. They held a variety of organizational positions, were
predominantly male and typically had higher formal power in terms of organizational
position than the victims. Though the number of female perpetrators was small (3), there
were no notable differences between the female and male perpetrators.
The interview protocol , which is in the Appendix, was composed of broad, open-ended
questions designed to permit informants to define the situation and decide what was important.
Informants were prompted to engage in what Wallendorf and Brucks (1993, p. 341) referred to
as “guided introspection,”which elicits reports of specific experiences associated with a unique
context in time and place. Sample questions were, “Would you describe the problematic
behavior that you witnessed or heard about in your work organization?”and “What do you
think enabled this problematic behavior to continue?”Interviews typically ranged in length
from 60 to 90 minute, but several extended to 3 hour. Informants were assured of anonymity.
Male 15 34
Female 22 3
Professional 15 2
Senior leader 10 18
Middle manager 4 8
Manager 3 1
Rank and file 5 1
Power relative to perpetrator/victim
Higher 8 34
Equal (peers) 3 2
Lower 26 1
Knowledge of sex harassment
The interviews were recorded and transcribed. The data were analyzed systematically and
intensively using standard qualitative methods (Corbin and Strauss, 2015). Themes that were
common across multiple informants were identified and are reported in the next section.
The limitations of in-depth interviews are well known, and the authors attempted to mitigate
them. Potential weaknesses include the tendency of researchers to ask for information to confirm
their assumptions and the tendency of respondents to give “canned”or self-serving answers to
the questions ( Jensen and Jankowski, 1991). The interview protocol was designed to minimize
these weaknesses with questions that were broad and open-ended. The authors used guided
introspection to encourage informants to think aloud in an unrestrained manner. Informants
reported encountering sex harassment in varied ways, and they represented a variety of
positions and experience levels in different types of organizations. Portraying the range of the
phenomenon is important to developing theory in qualitative research (Bonoma, 1985).
To guard against subjectivity and establish reliability (Corbin and Strauss, 2015), authors
did initial data analysis independently. They reported only findings that they agreed upon.
Many key findings were corroborated by secondary data including a report outlining an
extensive investigation into sex harassment at a large national organization. When reporting
the themes, quotations are used to add objectivity and depth of understanding. Unless
otherwise noted, the quotations are representative of ideas expressed by multiple informants.
The overarching finding was that perpetrators were embedded in networks of complicity
(social networks) that were central to explaining the persistence of sex harassment in
organizations. These networks protected perpetrators and enabled them to continue sex
harassment and other problematic behavior. Networks of complicity encompassed a wide
range of people whose roles ranged from support staff to high-level executives and
professionals. Members of the network can be classified as two types: active and passive.
Active participants were drawn into the network by a perpetrator’s charisma, formal power
and ability to control and shape information. They proactively protected perpetrators
through actions that ranged from making excuses for perpetrators and shielding them from
criticism, to sabotaging those trying to expose or counter perpetrators’behavior. They are
referred to as “active enablers.”
Passive enablers were recruited to the network of complicity by perpetrators or active
enablers. They enabled perpetrators to continue sex harassment largely through continually
ignoring perpetrators’bad behavior, turning a blind eye, making light of it or rationalizing it
to the point that it was not on their radar.
A third category of people who surrounded the network of complicity were bystanders.
They had (or should have had) some knowledge, or at least suspicion, of bad behavior.
Perhaps unwittingly, their inaction permitted the perpetrator and the network of complicity
to continue. Passive enablers and bystanders were on a spectrum in terms of how much they
knew about the perpetrator and the network’s activities as well as how much power they
had to resist and how closely they mirrored the perpetrator’s values. However, one thing
was clear: perpetrators could not have persisted in sex harassment without the support of a
network of complicity. Four themes that emerged from the data are reported below.
Theme 1: networks of complicity are enabling mechanisms
Organizations harbored sex harassers because networks of complicity protected them from
sanction in ways that would seem incredible to an objective observer. The enabling took
many forms. Common types of active support involved “fixing”problems and rewarding
people who complied with the norms of the network of complicity as Gary (journalism,
Okay, so how many people around [the perpetrator] know that he is a sexual predator? Well, he’s
got to have his fixers, and he has to have the people who are doing the “honey pot”work […]. They
all end up having to be burdened with the necessity of deceiving themselves and others as to who
[the perpetrator] is and what he’s doing.
Members fell prey to “motivated blindness”–the tendency not to see the unethical
behavior of others when it is not in one’s best interest to do so (Tenbrunsel et al., 2019) –
and “moral myopia”–a short-sightedness in moral vision in which moral issues do not
come clearly into focus (Drumwright and Murphy, 2004). Blindness to bad behavior and
moral myopia resulted from the choice to preserve ongoing relations over moral
obligations. Ignoring bad behavior within the network of complicity was common as
Lillian (journalism, victim) observed:
They [network members] all know each other’s bad things because they enable each other’sbad
behavior. And they let each other’s bad behavior continue saying, “Well, I’ll overlook that.”
Other network of complicity members said that they would do something about the
perpetrator, but then they did not as Anita (journalism, victim) recounted:
I’ve heard from multiple people who worked at [the company] that there were rumors about
him –that people knew that he attacked interns in the backs of cabs […]. Somebody told her
manager that he had assaulted her in his office under the pretenses of talking to her about
mentorship. She told her manager, and he said, “Oh, yeah. We know that there have been issues. I’ll
report it.”And then nothing happened.
Some network of complicity members provided passive support by turning a blind eye and
a deaf ear to rumors, jokes and innuendos. Others refused to dig too deeply into evidence of
inappropriate behavior, as Brianna (higher education, bystander) noted:
I don’t know the nature of the conversation [behind closed doors]. I do know there were some loud
voices in there. I knew people came out crying. I knew some of this was happening, but I didn’t
know what that was. So that’s somewhat like turning, like seeing something –not really
understanding what is, but also not wanting to dig any further.
Karen (nonprofit, bystander) attributed the inaction of some network of complicity members
to the fact that they did not know what to do to stop the sex harassment:
They’re passive enablers in that they don’t do anything directly. They almost don’t want to know
this [existence of sex harassment] because it challenges them to do something, and they have no
clue what to do.
Other network of complicity members and some bystanders unwittingly provided passive
support for perpetrators because they did not recognize the gravity of the perpetrators’
behavior. As Sarah (journalism, bystander) described:
And so, I look back, and I think I really only saw it [sex harassment] back then as immature guy
humor that had to be tolerated to play on that ballfield […]. I wish that I had seen it as having the
potential to be more damaging and had said something […] and maybe put the brakes on things
earlier before the culture deepened and worsened.
Network theory has an explanation for such behavior. The convergence of norms in the
network of complicity included an acceptance or tolerance of sex harassment, and as the
members became socially embedded into the network, it also engendered groupthink. For
example, when confronted with evidence of sex harassment by a member of the in-group
(i.e. the network of complicity), other network members rationalized that a fellow member of
the in-group could not be capable of such behavior ( Janis, 1971). Acknowledging that a
co-worker would sex harass others is difficult; doing so risks damage to favorable
perceptions of the organization, the in-group and one’s relationships.
Clearly, perpetrators could not have persisted in sex harassment without the support of
the network of complicity. This finding raises the question, “How are these networks of
complicity built and maintained?”
Theme 2: perpetrators are network builders and power brokers
Perpetrators were talented boundary spanners who built broad networks both inside and
outside their organizations. These networks helped perpetrators gain or increase their
power and use power differentials to protect themselves from condemnation. Nancy
(journalism, victim) described such a network:
They had a network of people in power that were actually all connected, and it was, to me, more of
just an older, elite, privileged, white boys’network.
Organizational social networks create and perpetuate social norms, interpersonal loyalties and
moral obligations (Pescosolido, 1992; Wellman and Worley, 1990). Networks of complicity
featured high levels of connectedness. Since network members had a number of connections
with other network members, including the perpetrator, the network was dense (e.g. Otte and
Rousseau, 2002). Because the networks were dense, norms, values and opinions coalesced
creating protection for the perpetrator. The network provided power, but many perpetrators
tapped other forms of power as well. Anita (journalism, victim) explained how a perpetrator
had formed ties with powerful people outside their New York-based organization:
He spent a lot of time building relationships with critical stakeholders […] investing in his
relationships […]. [The perpetrator] was connected and an insider in Washington […]. He had
tremendous influence behind the scenes.
Perpetrators had the power of weak ties as well as strong ties (Burt, 2000a; Granovetter,
1973). Their weak ties outside of their organizations enabled them to span structural holes in
the networks (Burt, 1992), which gave them access to unique resources and served as
another source of power. Their strong ties within their organizations gave them internal
clout to make or break careers, and they were more than willing to use their power to break
careers as Andrew (business, victim) noted:
They exert power […]. They hold things over you like your position. They hold things over you like
your job. They hold things over you like your promotion. And then they have a connected network
of, I believe, other people in power.
Perpetrators also used their legitimate power resulting from their positions in the
organizational hierarchy (e.g. a senior manager) in various ways to build their networks.
They doled out rewards to members and potential members of their networks, who owed
their positions, bonuses or promotions to perpetrators. Informants noted that people
receiving these benefits often did not receive them because of merit, but because they were
willing to support the perpetrator. These rewards increased loyalty to the perpetrator.
Michael (higher education, bystander) described the loyalty these rewards engendered:
There are people put in roles or given roles that were way above their pay grade. They had no
competency to be successful in those roles, but they were there. And when you put a mediocre
person in a role that is way above their pay grade, they’re going to be beholden to whoever put
them in that role, and they’re going to overlook anything else because now they are grateful for
being in a role that they could never hope to earn.
Perpetrators included or excluded others based on their support of the network. They
frequently used fear, along with power and authority, to exclude, dominate or intimidate
others. Mary (journalism, victim) noted:
[The perpetrator] does focus on maintaining power using really harsh management tactics, and it’svery
manipulative. All those things really fit into the definition of Machiavellian behaviors or attitudes.
Perpetrators used verbal and physical intimidation techniques. When people –often older
men and women –opposed perpetrators, the perpetrators disparaged or threatened them.
One perpetrator frequently formed his hand into a gun-like shape and pointed it at people he
disagreed with or disliked. Even when perpetrators did not actually harm others, people
assumed that they would be willing to do so as Anita (journalism, victim) explained:
Somebody bold enough to do this [unwanted attention and unwelcomed sex proposition] to a young
woman behind the scenes was probably a narcissist who would hurt her if she rejected him.
Perpetrators and active enablers increased and reinforced their power through bullying and
discrimination. They often preyed upon and took advantage of the most vulnerable
organizational members, whom more powerful people were unlikely to know well or be
concerned about. However, informants noted that perpetrators and active enablers also
attacked talented high performers if they viewed them as a threat to their agendas. Some
informants such as Sophia (higher education, victim) described the bullying and incivility
by active enablers whom she complained to as more difficult to tolerate than the threat of
rape that prompted her to complain. The bullying and disparagement caused her to have
significant self-doubt and to feel dismissed and undervalued. She also developed a major
medical condition, which she attributed to the bullying and incivility. Like Sophia, other
informants described the harm from bullying and incivility as more insidious than overt
sexual affronts because these behaviors were incessant, unrelenting and impossible to
avoid, while the more overt sexual affronts were episodic and sometimes avoidable with
As the above findings illustrate, perpetrators wielded power arising from various formal
and informal sources. Perpetrators had central positions (network centrality) resulting from
their connections with others (their strong and weak ties) (Freeman, 1979; Granovetter,
1973). Because of their centrality, perpetrators understood the networks around them; that
is, they had a high degree of network cognition (Burt, 1982; Krackhardt, 1987). Having the
ties and understanding the network enabled perpetrators to activate their ties when they
needed them for support (i.e. tie activation, Shea et al., 2015). In contrast, victims were either
on the periphery of their organizations or were pushed into marginal, isolated positions by
the perpetrator and network members. As such, they had far fewer connections, weaker ties
and a much lower level of network cognition than perpetrators. Victims, therefore, were
often unable to activate their ties for support.
Social network theory illuminates the ways that perpetrators built and maintained their
networks of complicity. Two additional questions arise: “What are the characteristics of the
perpetrators,”and “How were they so successful in building networks and wielding power?”
Theme 3: perpetrators are myth builders and information manipulators. Network members
perpetuate the myths and misinformation
Perpetrators were able to build and maintain their networks because they were master myth
builders and information manipulators, and network members perpetuated the myths and
misinformation. Our informants described three types of perpetrators: stars (or rising stars),
incompetents and the presumed harmless.
Stars (or rising stars). Some perpetrators had rare skills or scarce talents that greatly
benefitted their organizations –e.g. a renowned neurosurgeon or a television news anchor.
They were perceived as indispensable to the organization’s ability to accomplish its goals.
Mary (journalism, victim) described a star:
When one company relies so much on one man –when that man is seen as the brains of the
operation –that is a recipe for disaster […]. His lieutenants, they all bestowed him with magical
powers and belonged to his cult of personality. They were all very loyal to him.
While stars had considerable talent, they also were highly adept at promoting themselves and
elevating their indispensability to mythic proportions. Nancy (journalism, victim) noted that a
“star”perpetrator was never disciplined because the organization and its identity are “wrapped
up in those key journalists […] so they have power because they embody the organization.”
Stars relished having devout followers. These individuals, in turn, perpetuated the image
of the perpetrator as having superior capabilities essential to the organization. Gary
(journalism, bystander) noted:
My experience has been that they [perpetrators] have “groupies.”So, they have people on the staff
who like to be in the aura of the powerful, and the people in power like to have the “groupies.”
Despite any façades to the contrary, stars were highly egotistic and cared much more about
their own success and continuing their illicit behavior than they did about the success or
well-being of their organizations.
Incompetents. Some perpetrators were surprisingly incompetent, but they were
extraordinarily adept at building myths about their talent and indispensability. They
constantly spoke in private meetings, in public forums and to the media about their talents
and supposed successes.
Active enablers appeared to be blind to signs of the perpetrators’incompetence,
embraced the myths and perceived the perpetrators to be stars. Bystanders and others
who could not directly observe the work of theperpetratorsalsobelievedthemythsand
saw these perpetrators as gifted leaders and managers. More astute observers outside the
network of complicity described perpetrators’weak leadership skills, their lack of
technical competency and their inability to manage resources. Frances (higher education,
But incompetence was my major concern […] incompetence in, really in most aspects of the role –the
leadership skills, the communications. It was the wholething […] like saying that he had a plan when
clearly there was no plan.
Perpetrators were adept at recruiting others with talent to their networks, so that they could
conceal their own deficits. They were quite willing to defy organizational policies to put their
chosen lieutenants in power. Francis described serving on a search committee forced to hire
an unqualified candidate who had been preselected by the perpetrator:
We had a huge thing where we had to hire a new [senior manager]. And that was not a good search
[…]. [The perpetrator] had no regard for policy or procedure. And it was very tainted right from the
beginning because the decision had already been made. So, that’s a very helpless feeling, especially
when you’re on a committee, and it’s not the direction that the committee had decided to go on. But
of course, we were not the final say.
Presumed harmless. Some perpetrators disguised the harm they wreaked behind a veil of
humor. They built a myth that they were completely benign, funny and fun-loving people.
Active enablers and even bystanders perpetuated that myth. For example, Tammy (journalism,
bystander) said, “I just saw them as immature goof-offs.”Others rationalized the conduct as
“doing no harm,”“as just being his way”; he was an “old-school insider”who was merely
“quirky,”a“character”and fun. Debra (journalism, bystander) described one such perpetrator:
Wehadanoldermale[…] and numerous times he would say inappropriate things toward women in
general, toward co-workers, toward his boss […]. Many people excused the behavior as, “Oh that’s just
him. Hahaha”because he was a character […]. He was a funny guy who crossed the line all the time, all
the time. And it was well known among everybody who worked there, and we all let it happen.
The humor and light-heartedness not only protected the perpetrator, it also sent a message.
Observers and victims alike assumed that people who laughed at the inappropriate comments
of presumed-harmless perpetrators condoned, accepted and affirmed the behavior instead of
objecting to it.
All three types of perpetrators manipulated information to their advantage decreasing
the probability that their bad behavior would be reported. Active enablers were quick to
disseminate misinformation for perpetrators. For example, perpetrators would start rumors
about their victims’lack of skills, the insignificance of their accomplishments or their lack of
integrity. Network members perpetuated these slurs. This behavior marginalized victims
and created self-doubt. The way perpetrators shaped and framed information, often in
deceptive ways, also kept organizational members off balance. Jayson (higher education,
And my personal experience really had to do more with the mismatch in what he tells me versus
what he says in public. So a lot of it’s really deception […] and what I refer to as “selective
incivility.”[…] We call this person “Trump-Lite.”
Others noted that perpetrators were clever in how they framed their personas to screen and
manipulate information depending on the situation. Gary (journalism, bystander), who had a
particularly close working relationship with a perpetrator, testified that the perpetrator’s
behavior was completely unassailable in his presence:
[The perpetrator] was a completely different person with me […]. Never once in my presence in any
way, shape, or form, did [he] ever say anything that could even be misconstrued as locker room talk
or bad behavior. I think he knew that that wouldn’t fly with me […]. I think [perpetrators] just have
a very fine-tuned antenna as to read people.
Importantly, the people who had hired the perpetrators appeared to be willing –if not eager –to
buy into the perpetrators’myths and misinformation as were the active enablers.
As the above examples illustrate, perpetrators had positive as well as negative
characteristics. They were described as being social, energetic, charismatic, passionate
and charming but also cunning, dishonest, opportunistic, two-faced, unscrupulous,
egotistical, manipulative and Machiavellian –characteristics others have documented
(e.g. Ziegler-Hill et al., 2016). Perpetrators’ability to build myths and manipulate, shape
and control information shrouded their pathologies and negative characteristics so they
could harass with impunity. Perpetrators’centrality in their networks increased their
ability to control and manipulate information, build myths and use their status and power
to encourage other network members –especially active enablers –to embrace and
perpetuate the myths and misinformation. These findings converge with extant literature
(e.g. McLaughlin et al., 2012) and illustrate how perpetrators increase their power and span
of influence, which became self-reinforcing as suggested by Magee and Galinsky (2017).
That is, the higher the status, power and influence that perpetrators’attained, the more
network connections they established, the greater their network centrality became and the
greater their ability to create myths and manipulate information to camouflage their
The previous findings raise the question, “What are the effects of networks of complicity?”
Theme 4: networks of complicity metastasize
Like a cancer, networks of complicity spread bad behavior causing lasting harm to victims, other
organizational members and the organization as a whole. A vicious organizational cycle was set
in motion. Shielded by the network of complicity, perpetrators got away with sex harassment
despite organizational policies forbidding it. They felt immune from punishment, and their sense
of entitlement grew. As the perpetrator became more empowered and the network became more
embedded, the bad behavior increased, spread and often became more severe. In speaking
of a doctor who harassed a nurse and eventually threatened her life, Andrew (health care,
bystander) described the consequences of a perpetrator’s immunity from sanction:
It created a bit of a pandemic [of bad behavior] and the belief that it really doesn’t matter what a
physician does; we’re not going to get rid of them.
The bad behavior hurt victims who reported physical symptoms ranging from sleeplessness to
autoimmune diseases and psychological symptoms ranging from inability to concentrate
to severe anxiety. Incivility among network members created, contributed to and perpetuated a
toxic organizational culture. Anita (journalism, victim) described the behavior ofan active enabler:
[…] she [active enabler] was a toxic leader who would gossip about her subordinates. Nobody knew
where they stood. Your value was based on your pedigree […]. She also favored men, and she
would gossip about their sexuality and their personal lives […]. The culture just didn’t allow us to
do our best work.
Even incivility that was less severe took its toll and kept workers from feeling respected
Bystanders suffered as well. Hugh (journalism, bystander) expressed angst and regret
that he felt even years later:
And I like to think of myself as progressive and caring about people, and I was even a manager for
some of that time [when sex harassment persisted], and I think I just let it slide. And it’s the regret
of my career –that I let that slide.
A number of informants highlighted unfairness in hiring and promotion as a form of
organizational harm. Perpetrators often put unqualified people whom they knew would be
loyal to them in power. Another informant, Kayla (higher education, victim), reported that
she and her co-workers became so demoralized that they could no longer perform at the level
they had previously:
The impact that they [perpetrators] have on their direct reports is to create such dysfunction and
such angst –or people feeling not valued or respected or appreciated or not even able to get their
job done –because they’re being so micromanaged. And then that in turn can result in illness
because people who are used to accomplishing things are now being blocked.
Informants described their organization as being transformedbythenetworkofcomplicityfrom
being a “great place to work”with a collaborative climate to one that developed a toxic climate
devoid of trust and cooperation. Destructive competition developed as people and departments
were pitted against each other in fights for recognition, favor or resources. Informants spoke of a
breakdown in organizational trust as Andrew (higher education, victim) did:
I had to ask myself, “Do you trust your organization? Do you trust that they will do the right thing?
Do you trust they’ll make the right decisions if you got yourself into trouble or if somebody else got
in trouble?”[…] And I can honestly say at this point, I would say no. So, I’ve lost trust in [the
organization] […] to do the right thing.
When organizational trust broke down, people were even less likely to report wrongdoing.
The toxic culture, the breakdown in trust and the widespread disillusionment had
devastating effects on the organization. It prompted capable people to find jobs elsewhere
robbing the organization of much needed talent. As Andrew noted, “You just run; you just
leave.”Anita (journalism, victim) spoke of how some people even left the professions they
loved as she had done:
If you put into power people who sexually harass their subordinates […] or their colleagues behind
the scenes, and those who scream at and don’t acknowledge young people just starting out in the
profession, it creates a culture in which you think, “This is what it takes to get ahead –these are
the types of people that get ahead.”And that wasn’t a place that I wanted to be despite my love for
As employees who remained became disillusioned and fearful, they stopped innovating or
developing new initiatives. The organization’s future was jeopardized as Kayla (higher
education, victim) explained:
And I said to [a senior leader], “With people being so afraid and abused, innovation has come to a
halt.”And I perceived that as a huge risk, and I told him that I suspect that shortly we would see a
decline in [key success measures] and other things because we just weren’t able to move forward
Theme 4 illustrates the network property of contagion –the infectious spread of attitudes,
behavior and norms from “infected”to “susceptible”people (Granovetter, 1978; Jackson, 2010).
While the perpetrator was the initial sex harasser, other network members began to exhibit
other harassing behaviors such as bullying and incivility. Improper behavior became the
norm, and it was exacerbated and spread. A toxic culture developed, and such cultures have
long been recognized as lowering organizational productivity (e.g. Goldman, 2008).
In summary, the data robustly documented that networks of complicity formed to
protect, insulate and enable perpetrators to persist in sex harassment. The findings are
summarized in the following list:
•Overarching theme: perpetrators were embedded in networks of complicity that were
central to explaining the persistence of sex harassment in organizations.
−The network of complicity supported, shielded and enabled perpetrators to continue
their inappropriate behavior without sanction for prolonged periods of time.
•Theme 1: networks of complicity are enabling mechanisms.
−Members of the network of complicity enabled perpetrators to continue their bad
behavior by providing active support (e.g. covering for perpetrators) and passive
support (e.g. turning a blind eye).
•Theme 2: perpetrators are network builders and power brokers.
−Perpetrators used formal and informal power to build networks, and they then
derived more power from their central positions in the networks. Their ability to
activate network ties and span structural holes in networks inside and outside of
their organizations also heightened their power.
•Theme 3: perpetrators are myth builders and information manipulators.
−The three types of perpetrators –stars (or rising stars), incompetents and presumed
harmless –built and perpetuated myths about themselves. They manipulated
information to enhance their status and increase their power and influence. Network
of complicity members perpetuated these myths and spread misinformation.
•Theme 4: networks of complicity metastasize.
−Networks of complicity created toxic organizational cultures that spread like a
cancer and reduced the performance of individuals and the organization as a whole.
The findings demonstrated the usefulness of social network theory in explaining the effects
of networks of complicity, how and why they are built and maintained and why sex
harassment persists. They also documented how social network theory can supplement and
provide insights regarding other theoretical approaches used to study sex harassment. For
example, in organizations in which networks of complicity allowed sex harassment to
persist, social network theory highlighted other sources of power-dominance (e.g. network
centrality) and other types of organizational influences (e.g. social influence through
embeddedness and contagion) (Granovetter, 1978).
Importantly, network theory provides guidance to minimize the influence of perpetrators
and networks of complicity and reverse the toxic organizational cultures they created. For
example, the strong, reinforcing ties among perpetrators and network members must be
broken or weakened (Burt, 2000b; Feld, 1981). Perpetrators must be removed from
organizations, and when they are removed, formal work ties with them are broken; however,
the connections among other network members typically remain and enable the network to
persist. In fact, when members of a dominant group –e.g. a network of complicity –feel
threatened by another group (people who report a perpetrator), backlash can occur, and
network members are likely to strive to retain their power and status (Dobbin and Kalev, 2019).
Connections and ties have a decay function, and infrequent interaction can result in the
loss of a connection (Kleinbaum, 2012). As such, leaders must understand both formal ties
(e.g. work assignments) and informal ties (e.g. repeated social interactions) within the
organization (Feld, 1981), and then they must work to reduce interaction opportunities of
network members (Burt, 2000b). For example, to weaken formal ties, work units can be
reorganized, and work responsibilities can be reassigned to reduce task interdependence
(Feld, 1981). Informal ties typically are based on interaction choices that individuals
make (Kleinbaum et al., 2013). Leaders must communicate that there are consequences to
choosing to be connected to perpetrators and their supporters (Kleinbaum, 2012). All should
understand that there is no value in remaining in a network of complicity and that those
connections should be pruned (Hernandez et al., 2015). Internal communication vehicles or
social media channels can be used to correct misinformation generated by perpetrators and
networks of complicity and unpack the myths they created (Mergel, 2011).
Network theory provides guidance for supporting victims of sex harassment. As
demonstrated by the findings, perpetrators used their power to isolate their victims and
prevent them from accessing support. Victims must be connected and integrated into
networks of support. Many victims are hesitant to report sex harassment, so organizations
can provide victims access to people who can provide them support services, such as
counseling and confidential legal and professional consultation, without making a formal
report (NASEM, 2018). If victims launch formal reports, ombudspersons can support them
while advocating for a fair process. Organizations can connect victims with people who will
keep them informed about what to expect throughout the process and let them know about
developments in the investigation and any disciplinary actions taken (NASEM, 2018).
Mentoring programs can help victims form relationships with higher-ranked employees
who have more power and influence (Hezlett and Gibson, 2007).
Victims and their supporters can also receive validation and support from professional
networks, professional societies and others outside of their organizations (NASEM, 2018).
For example, the #MeToo movement highlighted the power of networking outside of a
given organization. Professional networks –e.g., Press Forward, a network of current and
former journalists (Boucher, 2017), and CongressToo, a network of former Congressional
staffers (Akin, 2018) –have offered many victims support.
Bystanders can play important roles in mobilizing positive networks that counteract
networks of complicity. Evil leaders cannot lead in evil ways without bystanders who are aware
of the leader’s behavior but do nothing to stop it (Kellerman, 2004). Bystanders can benefit from
intervention training based on the “Confronting Prejudiced Responses”(CPR) model, and they
can use confrontation as a lever to change organizational culture (Ashburn-Nardo et al.,2008).
The CPR model helps bystanders learn intervention techniques that increase their ability to
detect discriminatory behavior, help them understand harm and teach them how to confront
discriminatory behavior. However, sex harassment training can backfire and increase victim
defensive position of potential perpetrators (Dobbin and Kalev, 2019). Such “forbidden
behavior”training reviews harassment law, specifies forbidden behavior and outlines complaint
processes and punishments (e.g. Dobbin and Kalev, 2019). In contrast, bystander intervention
training that is not accusatory prompts trainees to identify and empathize with victims, to
intervene and to offer help (Katz and Moore, 2013). Sex harassment training has been most
successful when “training lasted more than four hours, was conducted face-to-face, included
active participation with other trainees on interdependent tasks, was customized for the
audience, and was conducted by a supervisor or external expert”(NASEM, 2018, p. 152).
In organizations suffering from persistent sex harassment, network theory highlights ways
of preventing networks of complicity. As noted in the findings, perpetrators derive power from
their centrality in the network and their ability to use power differentials to their advantage.
Likewise, sex harassment thrives in environments with significant power differences –e.g., the
star network anchor, the star academic researcher –in which one party has a great deal of
influence over the lives and careers of others (NASEM, 2018). Feeling powerless increases
people’s sensitivity to the obstacles to confronting perpetrators and inhibits their intentions to
confront (Ashburn-Nardo et al., 2014). As such, the power structure within an organization must
be altered in a manner that diffuses power and reduces the isolation of followers (NASEM,
2018). To diffuse power, leaders should be educated on the value and effectiveness of egalitarian
leadership styles based on shared power and trained to use them (NASEM, 2018). For example,
transformational leadership, a form of egalitarian leadership in which leaders motivate
followers through inspiration, is positively associated with team effectiveness (Flood et al.,
2000). Leaders with a socialized perspective identify and solve problems based on collective
interests and instill self-responsibility, self-initiative and autonomy in their followers (House and
Howell, 1992). A family-like culture of caring, looking out for others and accommodating
differences empowers employees throughout an organization (Cunningham, 2018). These
leadership approaches reduce the risk of sex harassment because those in power are more
approachable, tasks are shared and subordinates are treated respectfully as people of value
who can further the organization’s interests (Nelson et al., 2017). In addition, leaders must
understand that others view them as most responsible for confronting problematic behavior
because they are authority figures, and they must assume personal responsibility for doing so
(Ashburn-Nardo et al., 2019).
In sum, the approaches discussed above can be used to reverse the toxic culture created
by networks of complicity and transform organizations into places in which careers flourish
and sex harassment does not.
Directions for future research
Opportunities abound to investigate how to detect networks of complicity, neutralize their
negative effects and prevent them from forming. This study demonstrated that networks of
complicity thrive in many different sectors, but little is yet known about the commonalities
and differences associated with these networks across sectors, which may be key to
understanding their dynamics more fully. This study highlighted the importance of
identifying perpetrators and network members early before they cause extreme harm.
Research is needed to uncover the best methods of early detection. Once networks of
complicity are identified, researchers can explore optimal ways to disband these networks
without interfering with the organization’s performance as well as how network members
can be rehabilitated and reintegrated into the organization in positive, productive ways.
The findings demonstrated the power of network theory in understanding the dark side
of networks, but questions arise about the bright side of networks that empower and
support victims, bystanders and managers. Understanding the characteristics of positive
networks –how they activate, grow, evolve and dissolve and what leads to their success or
failure –is fertile ground for future research. The #MeToo movement has demonstrated
that victims of sex harassment can mobilize within and across organizations to provide
solutions. #MeToo and similar movements provide unique opportunities to understand the
role of social media in activating and shaping network evolution.
Network theory can increase understanding of how and why sex harassment persists
and how efforts aimed at making positive change within organizations and in society are
mobilized. However, much remains to be learned about how to best leverage network theory
to the advantage of organizations and society.
1. This is the second case described by Andrew.
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Appendix. Interview protocol
(1) Would you describe the problematic behavior that you witnessed or heard about in your work
•Tell me about the perpetrator.
•Tell me about the victim.
•Tell me about any others who were involved.
(2) How did you react?
(3) How did others react?
(4) Was anything done to try to stop the problematic behavior?
(5) What was the organization like when the problematic behavior occurred?
(6) What do you think enabled this problematic behavior to continue?
(7) In retrospect, are there things that you would have done differently?
(8) What did you learn from this experience?
(9) Is there anything else that I should know or should ask about?
Minette E. Drumwright can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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