Getting Used to Sexual Harassment: “Boiling Frog” Syndrome

Victims of workplace sexual harassment, gender discrimination, wage and hour violations, and other atrocious and illegal treatment often wait a shockingly long time to take action to stop the bad behavior, seek justice, and move on. Why is this?

Are victims psychologically weak, scared, or intimidated? Are their cases less than rock solid? Are they seeing mistreatment where there really isn’t any?

In many cases, the problem can be summed up nicely with the famous “boiling frog” metaphor. This is a metaphor that Al Gore made famous in his “Inconvenient Truth” documentary. Scientists and pundits evoke it to illustrate how it is possible for someone to drift into desperate straits without realizing it… until it’s too late to do anything about it.

Boiling Frog Syndrome: If you toss a frog into a pot of boiling, the frog will immediately and alertly hop out of the water to safety, given the chance. But if you put that same frog into a pot of colder water and slowly heat the water until it comes to a rolling boil, the frog will just sit there and slowly allow itself to be boiled to death.

The same principle might be at work with workplace sexual harassment and other kinds of mistreatment. If, on the first day of your job, your boss or co-workers made outlandish sexual comments to you, forwarded you lewd pictures, or propositioned you, chances are that you would leave and never come back… and potentially alert the authorities. This would be a logical and rational response.

However: imagine you take a job at an office – maybe somewhere in Midtown Manhattan, for instance. You work at that job for several months and begin to enjoy it and develop relationships. Then, one day, your boss makes a veiled sexual proposition, which you choose to ignore. Slowly, but surely, the innuendo escalates. Pretty soon, you are dealing with a full blown case of sexual harassment – including, perhaps, lewd propositions, surreptitious e-mails, unwanted touching, etc. But now — much like the frog placed in the cold water slowly heated to a boil — you don’t react “rationally” and instead allow the behavior to continue. You are now so used to your surroundings — and you’ve become inured to the incremental increase in the sexual harassment — that you know longer see it as weird but rather as something that’s a normal part of the tapestry of your office life, or at least something you should or could tolerate.

Fortunately, there are resources that can help you out of the metaphorical boiling pot. If you or someone you know and care about has been experiencing workplace mistreatment of any kind, connect immediately with the law firm of Joseph & Kirschenbaum at, or dial our offices for a free and private consultation at (212) 688-5640.

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