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Putting On Your Active Bystander Sweater at Work

Coworkers examine a flow chart made of sticky notes on a chalkboard.

Preventing Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

This is the final in a series of three posts on workplace sexual harassment and assault. Don’t miss the first and second: “Do I Have to Put Up with This?” and “What Are My Options?” In this post, a member of our Community Awareness and Prevention Services team talks about preventing sexual harassment and assault at work. Content note: description of workplace sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is not a new issue, and the #MeToo movement helped more people understand how common it is. Many companies and organizations have begun to look at how they can better prevent harassment as many of the most common tools, such as sexual harassment policy training, have been inadequate. BARCC brings our survivor-centered approach and training experience to answer this call.

At BARCC , we think about prevention in terms of creating a positive culture of safety and respect. Changing workplace cultures requires leaders who are committed to the issue and a comprehensive approach that uses many strategies.

In a workplace, leadership on this issue means communicating throughout an organization that harassment is not tolerated and that people who come forward will be supported. It means demonstrating that the issue of sexual harassment is a priority, and that the values of safety, respect, and equity are central to the organization’s culture. Leadership goes beyond compliance, as you can “comply” and still have a toxic workplace.

Committed leaders can look to research on best practices and apply what is recommended in a way that is appropriate for their organization. They can look to do things such as assess their current climate (through an anonymous, well-crafted survey), review policy, and seek the consultation of an organization such as BARCC. Training should be a central part of any sexual violence prevention and response strategy.

In our training, BARCC focuses on bystander intervention. Bystander intervention seeks to impact potential harassers’ behavior by addressing the culture around them. By teaching and encouraging people to take responsibility for creating and reinforcing cultures of respect and equity, we seek to change the dynamics around sexual harassment and violence. It means fostering a culture in which it is normal for people to speak up if they see something problematic or disrespectful. This applies to jokes, throwaway comments, and persistent non-mutual interactions.

For individuals who are looking to be active bystanders, we have some recommendations. People tend to view being an active bystander as putting on a cape and swooping in to save the day. Instead, we ask people to put on their active bystander sweaters. Preventing sexual violence means taking small actions every day to look out for the safety and well-being of the people around you. It means playing an active role in creating a culture of respect, safety, and equity. It means educating yourself and following the lead of people and organizations who center survivors.

We encourage people to be creative as active bystanders and provide examples of various strategies, outlined as the Five Ds:

  • Direct: Speak up and address inappropriate comments and behaviors head on. An example: Your coworker tells an inappropriate joke, and you say, “Hey, that’s not cool. I don’t think that’s funny.”
  • Distract: Get creative and do something to disrupt the situation. An example: You’re at a work party and see your coworker Jaime cornered by another coworker who is hitting on them. Jaime looks uncomfortable. You pop over and say, “Hi, can I interrupt? Jaime, did you to talk to [so-and-so] about [that thing]? Can you come over?”
  • Delegate: Alert other people and ask for their assistance. The more people who are aware and able to help, the better. An example: You’ve heard a coworker making sexually suggestive jokes about others in the office. You talk to your supervisor about it and how it makes you uncomfortable and ask about options for addressing it.
  • Delay: Take a moment to figure out your best course of action. If you freeze in the moment, you can always follow up later on. An example: You witness a coworker harassing another coworker, but don’t know what to do and don’t feel safe intervening. You check in with the targeted coworker later to see how they are doing, say that you didn’t think what the other person did was OK, and offer your support.
  • Document: Consult your workplace policy to document the incident or document it yourself by making a note of what you observed, including date and time. Check in with the person targeted about what you recorded. An example: A coworker regularly says inappropriate sexual things about another coworker. You start keeping a log of what the coworker says, who is involved, and when.

The following is a scenario used in the bystander intervention training along with how it might play out for someone to take action as a bystander.

In one department, there are five employees who work under the department manager, Elise, a woman who has considerable experience working in the field. She is considered to be effective in her role, and the department is known for being reliable and productive. Recently, Elise has been spending more time with one of her supervisees, Michael. She seeks opportunities to meet with him one-on-one. On one occasion, she suggests they get drinks after work, and Michael agrees. When the day comes, she tells Michael that he should just come to her place, and they can split a bottle of wine. He is cagey and later that day, lets her know that something came up, and he won’t be able to join her. She is understanding in the moment. The next week, she assigns someone else on the team a project that she initially had promised to Michael. She provides vague reasoning for this decision.

As a bystander in this scenario you could: Check in with Michael and ask how you can support him. You could report this to Human Resources, but definitely check with Michael first, so that he feels supported and is not blindsided by the report. Make note of what you’re noticing in terms of Elise inappropriately using her power as Michael’s boss. You could also try to distract by getting in the way of Elise’s advances (e.g., make up a crisis you need Michael’s help with).

As an individual, you have the power to inform and influence the office culture. Being an active bystander is a process: you’re always learning and continually recommitting to making people around you feel safe and respected.

A few things to note: there are limitations around acting as a bystander and many power dynamics that can be at play. If you don’t feel safe, you do the best you can. It may mean picking between several undesirable options. But we urge you to think through what you can do—and you can reach out to us for support! Whether that’s on our 24-7 hotline (800-841-8371) or through one of our many services, like our Legal Advocacy program or our trainings.

If you’re interested in learning more about preventing sexual harassment and assault at work, check out our trainings and request one online. If you’ve experienced workplace sexual harassment and want support, BARCC’s Legal Advocacy program can provide further information, connect you with other resources, or refer you to legal representation. You can request an appointment online or call our office at 617-492-8306.

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Posted by Eliza Campbell

Eliza Campbell
As BARCC's community engagement specialist, Eliza Campbell is responsible for increasing the capacity of communities to respond to and prevent sexual violence by building and strengthening relationships with community groups, organizations, and community leaders. She first came to BARCC as a volunteer for the Community Awareness and Prevention Services (CAPS) team in 2014, and she served as an graduate intern in the CAPS department and as the interim CAPS coordinator. Eliza has her master’s degree in social work from Boston University with a concentration in macro practice and a certificate in human services management. Prior to getting her master’s, Eliza worked at a small rape crisis center as a counselor and advocate for youth survivors of sexual violence. She was introduced to anti-violence work as an undergrad by volunteering on a hotline for survivors of domestic and sexual violence in Los Angeles.

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