November 7, 2019

Before #MeToo, bystander intervention training was mostly used on colleges campuses and in the military to teach techniques for preventing sexual assault. Today, as we experience a cultural shift from #MeToo to #NotHere, more HR professionals are recognizing the benefits of bystander intervention training in the workplace. By empowering employees to interrupt harassing behaviors and defuse potentially harmful situations, bystander intervention training can help prevent sexual harassment and promote a more respectful, inclusive workplace culture. 

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has been an early advocate of bystander intervention training and its role in stopping abusive behavior from rising to the level of unlawful harassment.  A co-chair of the EEOC’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace said that with leadership’s support, bystander intervention training could be a “game changer in the workplace,” creating a sense of collective responsibility that empowers employees to be engaged bystanders in preventing harassment. 

Lawmakers are also recognizing the value of training individuals on how to safely intervene to stop harassment. Under a new sexual harassment law in New York City, employers with 15 or more employees must train workers on bystander intervention as part of the annual training requirements. With new and expanded anti-harassment laws coming, expect to see more states and cities integrate bystander intervention into the training requirements for employers.

Overcoming Reluctance
Many bystanders remain on the sidelines due to a reluctance to get involved in awkward or threatening situations. Others don’t intervene because they don’t know how to do so in ways that are effective and safe. Bystander intervention training helps employees overcome these hurdles by teaching different techniques and strategies for responding, directly or indirectly. Training also reinforces the importance of exercising good judgment and taking action only when it’s safe to do so.

While each situation is different, four best practices that bystanders can choose from in most cases are Disrupt, Confront, Support and Report.

This technique focuses on disrupting the situation by distracting the harasser, the target of the harassment or both, depending upon the circumstances. Sometimes, all it takes is changing the subject or starting a conversation with the person being harassed.

Confronting the harasser doesn’t mean being confrontational or jumping in to say something in the heat of the moment. Confronting a harasser safely involves gauging whether to take action immediately or later. The idea is that if harassers believe others will step in and tell them their behavior is not acceptable, they may be less likely to engage in misconduct.

Showing support and empathy for a target of harassment is an opportunity for employees to be allies. Talking directly with someone after an incident (‘Are you OK?’ ‘Can I help?’), offering to go with them to human resources or reassuring them it is not their fault can help alleviate the sense of isolation they may feel. What matters is saying or doing something and sharing the responsibility for speaking up against abusive behavior.

Reporting misconduct is key to preventing it in the future, and active bystanders (like all employees) need to be familiar with their organization’s procedures and options for reporting incidents, whether that involves talking with a supervisor or HR manager or using an anonymous hotline or app. Importantly, employees should be reassured that whether they are witnesses or targets of harassment, they will be protected against retaliation for reporting it.

A New Approach to Training
One of the outcomes of the #MeToo movement is a demand for a new approach to sexual harassment training that encompasses behavior-based topics, such as bystander intervention, diversity and inclusion, and unconscious bias. The EEOC task force concluded that the traditional, check-the-box training model must change from simply focusing on avoiding legal liability to preventing workplace harassment and promoting respect and civility.

More Than a Technique
To be relevant and engaging to employees who consume most of their information online and via videos, the new model of sexual harassment training uses interactive content that is tailored to the organization, realistic video scenarios and other eLearning tools to reinforce key concepts and behaviors.

Bystander intervention training should be part of a holistic harassment prevention and communication strategy that begins with the right tone from the top. Delivering a clear, consistent message from the CEO and senior management that is backed up by the leaders’ actions tells employees the organization is serious about creating a safe, respectful workplace and providing training that empowers them with the knowledge and skills they need to stop harassment and prevent future incidents. 

This article by Andrew Rawson, Traliant’s Chief Learning Officer and Co-Founder, is reposted with permission from HR News (IPMA-HR), where it appears in the November 2019 issue.