Professor refutes theory that perpetuates victim blaming in workplace

Verónica Rabelo teaches a class.

SF State Assistant Professor of Management Verónica Rabelo lectures students in one of her classes in the College of Business.

Article explores how outmoded theory winds up in current research

In the 1940s, criminologist Hans von Hentig and defense attorney Beniamin Mendelsohn came up with a theory to explain human aggression. Simply put, their victim precipitation model asks what the victim did to invite the wrath of the aggressor, be it personality quirks or clothing choices. The idea informed policy and was often used in courtrooms as a defense in violent crime cases, such as sexual assault. Criminologists abandoned the approach, now described by many as victim blaming, by the 1960s. But in the last decade, the victim precipitation model has popped up again and again in industrial and organizational psychology research.

In a recent article that appears in the latest issue of the Industrial and Organizational Psychology journal, San Francisco State University Assistant Professor of Management Verónica Rabelo and two co-authors point out the troubling trend. Their essay traces the history of victim precipitation, lays out its flaws and discusses how those studying workplace relationships use the antiquated theory. It ends with a plea: “Victim precipitation is an archaic, regressive ideology. Criminologists have long abandoned it, and so should we." The authors also offer an alternative framework, “perpetrator predation,” which places agency on the attacker and looks at systemic causes for the aggressive behavior.

To illustrate how the theory can turn into workplace policies, Rabelo and her collaborators looked at a sexual assault prevention poster from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. The notice advised personnel to “Avoid becoming a victim” and offered eight tips, including only socializing with people who share similar values and avoiding secluded areas. The main problem is the advice implies that victims have control over their attackers' behavior, Rabelo said.

“What’s also striking is how this advice shrinks the world and opportunities at people’s workplaces. It restricts the physical and social mobility of certain workers by telling them to avoid certain areas or co-workers,” Rabelo said. “When really, if there are co-workers that are presenting a danger, supervisors should probably take a closer look at why these employees are allowed to act that way.”

The writers then examined a 2014 study, which used a victim precipitation lens to show more possible consequences. Researchers found that high achievers in a workplace often sparked envy in their co-workers. As a result, those workers were sometimes the targets of harassment. “With a victim precipitation lens, a manager might tell the envied employee to dampen their performance,” Rabelo said. “That could carry negative results, especially for women and/or people of color who already have a hard time getting their performance noticed and taken seriously." Instead of asking the high achiever to change, a perpetrator predation model would look at providing coaching to individuals experiencing jealousy, Rabelo said. “Maybe the issue is that the jealous workers are not being effectively motivated,” she added.

As a follow-up, Rabelo and the two other authors are planning a series of experiments to see how various theories, including victim precipitation and perpetrator predation, shape perceptions of actual sexual harassment scenarios. “We want to look at some of the measurable or empirical consequences of some of these ideologies,” she said.