August 26, 2021

Bystander Intervention: A Harassment Prevention Skill for Your Employees

Bystander Intervention: A Harassment Prevention Skill for Your Employees featured image

While companies of all kinds have sexual harassment and sexual violence prevention policies on the books, and they’re required by law to provide a safe work environment, widespread problems are still present.

It’s worth asking what more you could be doing to strengthen your own workplace culture against these incidents. One common issue is that there are rules in place against harassment, but workers haven’t been given practical information about how to act on those values.

This is where bystander intervention training can make a real difference. By briefing workers on the types of real-life harassment or sexual assault incidents they might witness, then giving them actions to take in these cases, a bystander intervention program is practical to the core.

Bystander Intervention: Help Employees Actively Stop Harassment

The concept behind bystander intervention is simple: Many harassment and sexual misconduct incidents have witnesses, but the perpetrators still go unpunished because the people who saw a problematic situation or witnessed inappropriate behavior didn’t intervene.

Bystander intervention requires employees respond to these situations. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports have revealed that a majority of cases of harassment are going unreported. Inappropriate touching may be reported as little as 8% of the time, and coercive actions 30%.

The EEOC noted that victims of harassment often assume complaints won’t be believed or acted on, or fear they will be retaliated against. In too many cases, fears of retaliation are founded. MIT Sloan lecturer Daena Giardella specifically called out companies taking action against employees who complain as one of the most concerning trends regarding harassment in the workplace.

A strong bystander intervention training program can help shift the momentum, creating a culture where it’s not incumbent on the victim to stop harassing behavior, as everyone in the company will be equipped to recognize and intervene when someone is doing something wrong.

That reaction doesn’t just involve stepping in to stop situations in progress. Bystander intervention also means supporting victims, letting them know they are not going to be blamed for what has happened and helping them resolve the situation in a fair way.

How Bystander Intervention Training Works

Bystander intervention training seeks to create a new kind of awareness among employees, so they’ll realize when harmful behaviors are taking place. Jane Stapleton, co-director of the University of New Hampshire’s Prevention Innovation Research Center, told Harvard Business Review that harassers often have their actions reinforced by their colleagues’ silence.

When no one steps in to contradict someone behaving in a toxic or harassing way, that person has no incentive to stop, and there’s no prospect of discipline or consequences. Stapleton added that in such a case, all the pressure is on the potential victim to fend for themself, an unacceptable burden to place on them.

According to HBR, trainer and consultant Fran Sepler told the EEOC that companies should have well-trained middle managers who are ready to deal with harassment reports. When employees up and down the corporate ladder have been trained on how to spot and take action against harassing behavior, the overall culture of the workplace can improve dramatically.

Sepler explained that there are many forms of bystander intervention. From defusal, distraction and interruption during the course of an incident to supporting victims and making reports afterward, employees should be familiarized with each of these methods, as well as when to use them. 

Encouraging these new forms of bystander behavior is a strong part of a harassment and interpersonal violence prevention program. In such a system, each employee will feel a personal responsibility to be an active bystander, stopping harm from coming to their colleagues. Participants will be able to recognize a risky situation and intervene in an appropriate way.

Empower Your Workforce with Harassment Prevention Training

Training courses around bystander intervention can become a pillar of your company’s overall harassment prevention training program. As a form of intervention that takes pressure off of the people being harassed, it can be especially important in building a better culture overall.

While much of the research around harassment and company culture focuses on sexual harassment, bystander intervention applies to issues of all kinds. Employees who are ready to stand up for their coworkers can intervene and prevent offensive behavior and discrimination, no matter what aspect of identity is being targeted — gender, sexuality, race, religion, disability or anything else.

Your business won’t be able to reach its full potential unless you can find effective ways to make your workers comfortable. Harassment prevention programs in general are an important step in this direction, and direct, specific components such as bystander intervention training help prevent those policies from being just words.

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