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Bystander Intervention: How We All Have the Power to Stop Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

With every new report of sexual harassment – Harvey Weinstein, the #MeToo campaign, the President’s Club scandal - comes the reality that this is prevalent in every workplace. 

According to research carried out by the Trades Union Congress, 69 per cent of women in manufacturing for example report experiencing sexual harassment compared to an average 52 per cent across all industries or 63 per cent for those aged 18-24.

It is no surprise therefore that this year women are driving the discussion about how to change workplaces for the better. But their male co-workers have the power to help, too.

Often the training that is provided by employers is inadequate for many reasons, particularly when it comes to how colleagues can be encouraged to help.

Recently experts have been pointing to the concept of ‘bystander intervention’ as a way to fight sexual harassment. Simply put, it's when someone interrupts a potentially harmful situation and can include stopping actions or comments that promote sexual harassment and reporting it.

Supporters say it empowers bystanders to step in when they witness bad behaviour. One reason men may be able to help is that the stakes just aren't as high for them as they are for their female colleagues experiencing harassment. Often women are told they are "overreacting” if they do speak up or fear they won’t be believed or could lose their job.

Having said that male colleagues are not necessarily uncaring or afraid. They may simply be uncertain as to when and how to proceed. If they are provided with clear indications and directions, it is much more likely that they will intervene and speak up.

Traditional harassment training, which uses videos and quizzes that normally focus on employers trying to avoid legal liability in place of effective prevention, need to be tailored with this philosophy in mind. In a corporate environment, sexual harassment training is usually a routine yearly obligation. But in many workplaces training is minimal – just watching a video – or even non-existent.

After analysing 74 examples of sexual harassment training from 1980 to 2016, Elizabeth Tippett, an associate professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, concluded that most training programs are too narrow in their themes. In her analysis, she says that training still focuses on legal language and obscure, unlikely misconduct scenarios. 

More often though, the problem lies in culture and attitude, which basic video presentations won’t address or easily change. 

During this training it is important to therefore examine the event from a male bystanders' perspective as well. Experts say they are more likely to intervene in a situation where harassment is taking place on the street when the victim makes it obviously clear that the conduct is unwanted sometimes with a clear "Stop harassing me. I don't like it."  

In a workplace, this might not be as clear cut. A male colleague may be uncertain as to exactly what has or is happening, whether there is some type of unknown relationship, whether his offer to intervene will be welcomed or rejected and what will happen if he does. He could also be unsure as to whether intervening will make the situation worse.

It is likely then that all of this uncertainty compounds into a general fear of not intervening, that the easiest action is to take no action at all.

If male colleagues are encouraged to speak up with clear direction about what type of behaviour they should look out for, who they can approach with trust, what that will then mean and what processes to follow, we may see more positive change. Recognising sexual harassment is the first step, but reporting with a view to prevention, is the goal.

Remziye is an employment lawyer at Slater and Gordon Lawyers in London.

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