Bystander Training for Workplace Harassment Prevention

The term sexual harassment was coined more than 40 years ago. The vast majority of companies have policies that address sexual harassment, and many even provide some amount of general training for employees on the topic. In spite of this, the #MeToo movement has revealed just how widespread and entrenched the problem is in workplaces across all industries and sectors of the economy. Quantifying the damage sexual harassment causes to companies is tricky, but most agree it’s in the billions thanks to lost productivity, insurance, settling lawsuits, and so on. Far more important than all that is the harm to women and their careers – and that’s something you just can’t put a price tag on. Whatever efforts companies have made to reduce and prevent workplace sexual harassment have not been effective. Bystander training is one route that may help.

Bystander training has proven surprisingly effective in cases of workplace harassment.

Evidence-Based Anti-Harassment Practices are Few and Far Between

In spite of all the recent attention brought to sexual harassment by the #MeToo movement, evidence-based research on anti-harassment strategies is virtually non-existent. Two exceptions include higher education and the military. What has proven surprisingly effective in those contexts is something called bystander training. It involves training people to recognize and intervene to prevent, stop or deal with sexual harassment.

What’s important here is making sure the training is high-quality and in-depth. The typical corporate anti-harassment training is little more than a hastily assembled video included as part of the company’s other compliance training content. Obviously, it’s not working. A more thoughtful approach is required for adequate bystander training. When the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission came out with its Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace Report in 2016, it described the main four things most bystander training focuses on:

  1. Create awareness– Enable bystanders to recognize potentially problematic behaviors.
  2. Create a sense of collective responsibility– Motivate bystanders to step in and take action when they observe problematic behaviors.
  3. Create a sense of empowerment– Conduct skills-building exercises to provide bystanders with the skills and confidence to intervene as appropriate.
  4. Provide resources– Provide bystanders with resources they can call upon and that support their intervention.

You can’t accomplish all of that in a 20-minute video. One key to success in this approach is to generally begin shifting organizational culture to one where everyone understands it is their responsibility and duty to play an active role in improving the workplace environment for the benefit of everyone. As of April 2019, every employer in New York City with more than 15 workers is required by law to provide annual interactive anti-sexual harassment training to all employees. Hopefully bystander training will feature prominently in what companies do. The City’s model training, however, is only 45 minutes, which hardly qualifies as in-depth. At least bystander training is included in the five topics covered.

What bystander training is good for is disrupting an all-to-common scenario where everyone just ignores a poorly behaved co-worker, maybe even warning others they should avoid the person. But no one speaks up to confront the person directly. Why is that? Well, for starters most people don’t like direct confrontation, and especially when it’s about something like harassment-type behavior. But our risk-averse approach sends the wrong message to the offensive person – that they can get away with what they’re doing. Bystanders must not remain silent and thereby place all the onus for action on the victims or targets of harassment. Everyone must shoulder the responsibility.

Effective Bystander Training is Long-Term Commitment

For bystander training to be effective, there has to be a workplace culture based on active employee involvement in creating an environment that’s good, safe and productive for everyone; one in which no one would think twice about confronting harassment behaviors because they understand how being risk-adverse in those situations only helps perpetuate bad actors and their bad behaviors. For many workplaces, this will be a profound shift in organizational culture, which is not something that happens overnight, and certainly not after showing one short training video about sexual harassment. Companies who want to do the right thing have to think of anti-sexual harassment as a long-term commitment that takes a substantial amount of effort and well-developed education and training programs.

When everyone has a mutual understanding of agrees to what constitutes acceptable workplace behavior, then everyone has a common reference from which to confront bad behaviors. When someone tells that offensive and dirty joke, you can tell them they’ve crossed the line because everyone understands what that line is and has agreed to abide by it.

But all of that can only work when company leadership has made it clear in both word and deed that there is a zero-tolerance policy regarding sexual harassment. And that no one’s career will ever be jeopardized by speaking up and out against harassing behaviors. If anything, it should be rewarded as a vital contribution in improving the workplace for everyone. This includes supporting any targets or victims of harassment who might be feeling isolated or too alone to take action themselves. An empathetic offer to assist however you can might be the show of support they need to go talk to human resources about what happened.

There are many ways your company can tackle the important issue of workplace sexual harassment, and one of them should be with robust bystander training programs, among others. If your company needs a powerful yet easy-to-use learning management system (LMS) to streamline the creation, distribution and tracking of training courses and content such as bystander training, be sure to take a closer look at the eLeaP LMS. It has all the LMS features you need to make the most of learning and training at your company. Flexibility and customizability make eLeaP a powerful LMS solution, and yet is ranked #9 on the Capterra list of Top 20 Easiest to Use LMS options on the market today. With a library of 850+ training videos ready to go on a wide variety of business topics and affordable monthly pricing, today is the day to start your 30-day free trial to see what eLeaP can do for you!

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