Effective bystander intervention is more accessible said than done, so your decisions around your training options become critical.
Would you agree it requires many interconnected individuals, all with their attitudes and behavior, to define a company’s culture? If so, maybe you’ll also agree that no one person, like an HR manager, can single-handedly manage or change a company’s culture. Yes, leaders and managers can have significant influence, but in the end, culture is an ecosystem that spreads through a network of individuals.
Harassment erodes culture
Intuitively we know that a culture of harassment can erode organizations from the inside out—and research continues to back up that assertion. The National Communication Association’s Journal of Applied Communication Research reported that a study by Jessica L. Ford and Sonia R. Ivancic examines how organizational culture affects victims’ resilience, fatigue, ability to cope, and vulnerability. They describe sexual harassment fatigue as when workers continuous sexual harassment results in feelings of helplessness, anger, or an emotionless state.”
The study argues that this fatigue is terrible for both organizations and workers. For organizations, it means that sexual harassment within the organization may continue. For workers, fatigue may lead to a lack of upward mobility or cause them not to report harassment. And when participants were asked to react to statements like “My organization doesn’t want employees to come forward about sexual harassment,”—results showed that participants who felt that their organization tolerated sexual harassment also felt vulnerable to future abuse. In contrast, workplaces seen as intolerant of sexual harassment were associated with resilience.
Where bystander intervention fits in
So clearly, harassment harms culture. But what can we do to tackle this issue and affect positive culture change? First, let’s go just a bit back in time. Consider that sex discrimination has only been illegal in the U.S since the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And the first sexual harassment cases were not brought on until the 1970s—with the Supreme Court not considering this issue until the 1980s.
And with the #MeToo movement, it’s only in the past few years that people have felt empowered to speak up about harassment in the workplace. But speaking up is exactly where the answer lies. Some strong indications engaging others to be part of the solution is one of the most effective ways to prevent harassment in the workplace.
While workplace-related research is still emerging, there is some solid research on college campuses and a compelling report on the military’s effectiveness of bystander intervention. On her blog, journalist and best-selling author Brigid Schulte say, “Culture change is hard — it can take anywhere from months to several years, experts say. It’s much easier to go for the annual, canned webinar training on sexual harassment that checks the legal-liability box.
Yet culture change is exactly why bystander interventions could be powerful: the strategy recognizes that, when it comes to workplace culture, everyone is responsible for creating it, every day, in every interaction.”
Like it sounds, bystander intervention training empowers people to become active participants rather than helpless witnesses. And because it changes the dynamic, bystander intervention adds a critical ingredient to the mix that can significantly impact the outcome. As a participant, bystanders can pick up clues and stop something from happening before it escalates into an egregious act—creating protection for everyone involved.
So, how does an organization educate its employees on how to intervene appropriately? In a 2021 HBR article, Nuala Walsh, a behavioral scientist and founder of MindEquity Consulting, recommends that “Organizations must review and upgrade the suitability of existing reporting mechanisms. For example, consider investing in educating employees to spot and appropriately respond to signs of misconduct that they witness as bystanders.”
But effective bystander intervention is more accessible said than done, so your decisions around your training options become critical. When harassment training includes guidance about bystander intervention strategies and techniques, it can become a potent tool.
Traditional old-school harassment prevention training focuses solely on what NOT to do. Paradoxically, this can backfire, mainly if the activity is poorly done and full of cliches and tired narratives. The research described in an article by Frank Dobbin, professor of sociology at Harvard University, and Alexandra Kalev, associate professor of sociology at Tel Aviv University, shows that such training can have an opposite of the desired effect, where harassers are more likely to blame the victims than they were before the training.
A new dimension to harassment training
Bystander intervention circumvents this cycle by adding a new dimension. The key to this is that rather than positioning people as either victims or harassers, it assumes good intent on the part of all participants. Everyone is engaged in spotting harassing behavior and to step in to help. That positive engagement puts everyone on the same level and in a better place to contribute positively.
It’s important to know that not all harassment training includes a bystander intervention component. Including this element requires a deft hand with shaping the narrative and telling the story in a relatable and meaningful way. The production quality must be the highest, with top experts informing the process along the way. But the outcome can be well worth the commitment. With practical harassment prevention training that includes bystander intervention, participants will:
- Experience examples of real-life situations where intervention can have a positive effect.
- Gain insights into the perceptions and feelings of the victims.
- Know what to look for in harassing behavior as it begins to emerge.
- Develop tools and strategies to know how and when to speak up.
- Learn how to produce the best outcome in a difficult situation.
And while even one training session can help, repeated sessions year-over-year, provided they have fresh, new content each time, will reinforce these learning points. Over time intervention will come to feel more natural to participants. And even more beneficial, harassing behavior will begin to diminish substantially because of its positive effect.
The journey, outcomes, and rewards
When organizations consider whether to embark on higher-level harassment prevention, it’s essential to understand what they will accomplish. Here’s the kind of outcome you can expect if your harassment prevention training includes nuanced and meaningful guidance on bystander intervention.