Workplace sexual harassment continues to be a major problem despite common sense strategies such as training and anti-harassment policies. According to the New York Times article, “Sexual Harassment Training Doesn’t Work. But Some Things Do,” by Claire Cain Miller, many workplace anti-harassment training programs exist because of 1998 Supreme Court cases which determined that companies must train employees on anti-harassment policies in order to not be held liable for sexual harassment cases. This is not to say that companies don’t have their employees’ best interests in mind when making policies and training personnel, but perhaps there are more effective tools for combating sexual harassment. The following will look at the promising practice of bystander training as an innovative and effective method for combating sexual harassment in the workplace.
First, it is important to discuss the reasons that typical training practices miss the mark. Cain Miller shares research findings that link traditional training to the reinforcement of gender stereotypes and a feeling of discomfort by employees. Training tends to label men as powerful aggressors and women as powerless victims. Furthermore, it tends to discuss sexual harassment problems in the context of being an aggressor or victim while most people would not label themselves in either category. The article suggests moving towards training methods that address bystanders and how they can prevent or limit the severity of harassment.
Cain Miller states that bystander training for sexual harassment has been beneficial and widely used by the United States military and college campuses. Brigid Schulte elaborates on this in “To Combat Harassment, More Companies Should Try Bystander Training,” published by Harvard Business Review. She explains that “training bystanders how to recognize, intervene, and show empathy to targets of assault not only increases awareness and improves attitudes, but also encourages bystanders to disrupt assaults before they happen, and help survivors report and seek support after the fact.” Cain Miller and Schulte share common tips for bystander intervention. They understand that being a bystander can put a person in a very uncomfortable and unsure situation. People may fear the possibility of further escalating a situation or retaliation by the aggressor and other members of the organization. Thankfully, bystanders have a lot of options for deescalating a situation, many of which are non-confrontational.
When bystanders hear or see something that may be sexual harassment, they should feel empowered to act. One popular and effective intervention strategy is to use distraction. Bystanders may choose to enter the conversation by asking an unrelated question or changing the topic. They may also consider asking the victim to help them with a task or to join them to go over a project. What is important is that these actions provide a potential victim with a way out of the uncomfortable situation. Distractions also avoid direct confrontation, which bystanders may hesitate to do if they are unsure of the severity of the situation or fear retaliation. Both articles, discussed above, stress the importance of asking the victim how they perceived the earlier situation. Victims may feel isolated after an event if they believe that nobody else perceived the situation to be offensive. Without escalating the situation, it is important for bystanders to offer support to victims by validating their perception of the event, reminding them that they are not at fault, and offering support with reporting the situation if they wish to do so.
The Office of Congressional Workplace Rights, formerly the Office of Compliance, uses the acronym “STOP” to highlight the role of a bystander in “A Bystander’s Response to Workplace Harassment.” The acronym goes as follows:
Stay close to the target of harassment
Take notes as soon as you have an opportunity so that key facts are remembered
Offer support to the victim; and
Proclaim (report) the incident to a supervisor
There are a few principles to note when using the “STOP” acronym. Staying close to the target of harassment is important so that he/she is not left alone with the aggressor. The aggressor is less likely to escalate the situation when there is a witness. Taking notes is important, even if you believe you will remember exactly what happened. There have been many psychological studies demonstrating the invalidity of eye witness testimonies. No matter how good ones’ memory, it is easy to become confused or omit parts of a situation. For this reason, notes should be written as soon as it is safe to do so. Finally, reporting (proclaiming) an incident to a supervisor can be very challenging. Before doing so, one must consider the positive and negative consequences of reporting. The reporter should consider whether the supervisor is likely to carry bias towards the victim or aggressor. If the organization already has formal policies and procedures for filing reports of unethical behavior, these should be followed. A hotline can also be an effective way to empower employees to speak-up anonymously.
In summary, traditional methods of combating sexual harassment in the workplace have failed to be fully effective. Training programs that concentrate on the aggressor and victim tend to play up gender stereotypes and ignore the role of most people as bystanders. Bystander training is a promising approach to combating sexual harassment that has been widely used by the military and colleges across the nation. This training method can be adopted and adapted for use in a variety of organizations. Doing so will empower bystanders by providing strategies that break the cycle of sexual harassment.