One of the positive outcomes of the #MeToo movement is a greater awareness and willingness of individuals who witness workplace harassment to take action to stop or report it. The concept of bystander intervention, rooted in the military and on college campuses, is gaining traction among training and HR professionals and other workplace experts.
A 2016 report by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Select Task Force on Harassment in the Workplacerecommended that employers explore bystander intervention as one of the new types of training that may help prevent conduct from rising to the level of unlawful workplace harassment. A task force co-chair said that with leadership’s support, bystander intervention training could be a “game changer in the workplace,” and create a sense of collective responsibility that empowers employees to be engaged bystanders in preventing harassment.
Some lawmakers agree. Bystander intervention is among the training topics required under New York City’s Stop Sexual Harassment Act in NYC, which applies to employers with 15 or more employees. With a growing number of states enacting anti-harassment laws (including California, New York, Illinois, Connecticut, Maine, and Delaware), bystander intervention is likely to be a part of other mandated sexual harassment training.
What Is an Active or Engaged Bystander?
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center, a nonprofit organization in Harrisburg, PA, describes an engaged bystander as someone who lives up to their responsibility to prevent sexual harassment by “intervening before, during, or after a situation when they see or hear behaviors that threaten, harass, or otherwise encourage sexual violence.”
As part of an ongoing harassment-prevention program, bystander intervention training is an effective tool in preparing employees to recognize unacceptable behavior and safely intervene. While each situation is different, among the tips and techniques for bystander intervention are Disrupt, Confront, Support, and Report.
A bystander can disrupt and diffuse a potentially harmful situation by simply changing the subject and the mood. Sometimes all it takes is starting a conversation with the harasser or the person being harassed. “Excuse me, Kai, I could use your help with a last-minute project.”
Confronting the harasser doesn’t mean jumping in and demanding the harasser stop. Speaking in a respectful way with the harasser after the incident about their inappropriate behavior and its effects on individuals and the organization may result in a change of attitude and behaviors in the future.
Another simple yet powerful way to be an active bystander is to talk directly with the target of harassment after an incident (“I saw what happened, are you OK?” “Would you like me to go with you to HR?”). Reassuring a co-worker it’s not their fault also may help lessen the impact of the incident and alleviate their sense of isolation. What matters is being an ally, expressing support and sharing the responsibility for speaking up against abusive behavior.
Whether it’s using an anonymous hotline or speaking with HR, a manager, or other designated individual, encouraging employees to report harassment is key to prevention. Employees should be reassured they are protected against retaliation for reporting incidents or providing information about a complaint. Managers and supervisors should be trained on their specific responsibilities to address and report objectionable behavior they observe or hear about.
Bystander intervention is more than a strategy and set of techniques—it’s becoming a cultural imperative as organizations explore new strategies to stop sexual harassment and foster a safe, respectful workplace. An integral part of a holistic approach to addressing workplace harassment, bystander intervention training can help move the conversation from awareness to action to prevention.