As business leaders confront the #MeToo crisis, many turn to sexual harassment training. It seems like such a great idea. Let’s train people not to be harassers. Let’s train people not to be victims. Let’s train everyone how to respect boundaries and respond to reports of sexual harassment. If we train every single person, eventually we’ll get this problem under control.
Sadly, the facts about sexual harassment training are not so great. There’s been very little research on its effectiveness, and, for the most part, the results have been pretty lame. In at least one case, the training seemed to have exacerbated the problem.
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t offer training. But we need to think again about how to make it helpful and effective. Bystander intervention training is one element of training that seems promising. The bystander intervention model puts the burden of stopping sexual harassment on someone outside of the act, a neutral third party.
Think about it — who really has the best likelihood of changing a harassment situation? Is it the harasser? Probably not. Perhaps he/she is finding the harassing behavior gratifying in some way. It feels powerful, or sexy, or funny. Perhaps he/she is socially clueless, not really intending to be offensive but incapable of reading interpersonal signals. In any case, the harasser is not likely to instigate change.
What about the victim? We do recommend training employees to practice a fierce response to sexual harassment in the workplace. In some cases, a forceful response from the victim, either in the moment or by reporting the behavior, can be effective. But as we know from the accounts of many victims, speaking up is often excruciatingly difficult. Shame and fear are powerful barriers to putting a stop to harassment.
That leaves bystander intervention. By definition, the bystander is someone who sees inappropriate behavior but is not part of it. Some bystanders speak up, either in the moment — “Hey, stop that!” — or afterwards — “Hey, that was not cool, what you did to Ericka. It’s not funny and you should knock it off.” But many bystanders remain silent out of fear, embarrassment, or just not wanting to get involved.
Bearing witness to a sexual harassment situation is not that different from intervening in other kinds of bullying or abusive situations. Bystander intervention training for the workplace can offer some tactics people may not have thought of. Here are three bystander intervention techniques:
Stare. If you see something going down that looks wrong, just stand there and stare. Make it clear that you are watching. Often the harasser will glare at you, but in my experience, he/she usually will not persist in the behavior in front of an attentive witness.
Draw the fire. I once watched a professor tormenting a student, loudly and publicly criticizing her work without giving her any meaningful feedback. I could see she was struggling to maintain her composure, so I spoke up and said to the prof, “I don’t like what you’re doing!” He turned on me in a rage, accusing me of being a weakling who didn’t belong in his class. But he stopped picking on her, which is what I wanted, and I was quite capable of handling his temper tantrum because I had deliberately provoked it. Although I was shaken by his attack, I walked out of the class feeling like a winner, and my fellow student was just fine.
The buddy system. A physician liked to bully the professionals on his team. At each meeting he would pick a target and harass that person. Sometimes he would apologize in private later, but the public humiliation kept happening. The team was angry and demoralized. They decided to create a buddy system. Each team member had a designated partner, and if the doctor started to pick on your buddy, it was your job to stick up for him or her. A curious thing happened – once they created the system, the physician stopped tormenting people. They never had to use the system. Somehow, their agreement to defend and protect each other changed the atmosphere in the team meetings and the problematic behavior stopped.
These are just three examples of bystander intervention. No tactic will work all the time, but finding and implementing the right bystander intervention program can help. An attitude of mutual responsibility and a willingness to confront bad behavior are powerful tools for changing a culture and making our workplaces safer and kinder.
If you’re interested in bystander intervention training, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org