Don’t expect harassment victims to complain, encourage bystanders to intervene

(sourced from HR Daily 05 November 2014)

harassment victims


Employers can’t expect workers who have experienced sexual harassment to make formal reports, but they can encourage “bystander intervention” to identify ‚ ¨ and prevent ‚ ¨ unacceptable behaviour, the University of Wollongong’s Dr Michael Flood told a seminar this week.

“If you set up a system in your workplace that just relies on complaints from alleged victims, it’s just not going to work ‚ ¨ most people don’t make formal reports,” Flood told the Diversity Council Australia event on engaging bystanders.

An approach that also motivates employees who witness or hear about inappropriate behaviour to speak up will be far more effective, he says.

According to Flood, sexual harassment in the workplace is the product of hundreds of comments, behaviours and interactions that are too often tolerated or ignored.

“[If] a man in your workplace sexually harasses a woman in your workplace, that doesn’t come out of the blue; that doesn’t come out of nowhere. It comes out of a whole series of ways in which he’s been given permission to do that, in which he feels entitled or that it’s appropriate to do that; a whole series ‚ ¨ hundreds ‚ ¨ of comments, behaviours, interactions and so on that lead up to that,” he says.

“There’s a continuum of behaviours, jokes and comments. For example, seeing women just as sexual objects, seeing harassment as normal, seeing victims as to blame, and so on.”

The cumulative impact of tolerating seemingly minor or trivial behaviours, comments and jokes can be a culture that implicitly condones discrimination, violence and harassment, Flood warns.

On the other hand, speaking up about these behaviours can also have a cumulative impact.

“All of us in this room can strengthen the conditions that make that violence or harassment less likely in the first place. In other words, we can play that preventative role,” Flood says.

Empower bystanders to be “agents of change”

In the context of sexual harassment or sexual violence, bystanders are neither victims nor perpetrators, but are “present in some way”, Flood says.

“They see something, they hear something, they’re close to the violence or the harassment or the abuse in some way. They’re in a position to speak up, to prevent it, to interrupt it ‚ ¨ or not.”

A bystander might hear a male colleague boasting about having “great sex with this woman who was too drunk to talk or walk”, or they might just encounter an attitude, joke or comment that “feeds into those kinds of behaviours”.

They might witness a group of men scoring women out of 10 based on their looks, for example, or a “jokey comment” about women “asking to be raped”.

“The issue here is that these things feed into harm ‚ ¨ feed into various kinds of harassing or assaulting behaviour,” Flood says.

Bystanders are often left wondering how a woman who has suffered sexual harassment, for example, has “let” it happen ‚ ¨ why she hasn’t spoken up.

But if bystanders are trained to be “agents of change” they will instead ask questions such as, “how could we let this happen?” and “how can we prevent it from happening again?”, and blame the perpetrators, not their targets.

Simply saying to a perpetrator “what you said earlier really bothered me” or “I wonder if you realise how that comes across?” has the potential to prevent future harassment.

Flood adds that sexual harassment is just part of “a whole range of behaviours” that maintain gender inequality at work.

“And the way they maintain gender inequalities is to make women feel unwelcome or like it’s not really their space, or they don’t belong there ‚ ¨ they’re the odd one out or they’re lesser than men at that workplace.”

Systems can influence behaviour in “powerful ways”

An organisation’s systems and climate can influence bystander behaviour in “powerful ways”.

Flood says employers can empower bystanders by giving them “effective voice systems” so they speak up, and are rewarded ‚ ¨ not punished or marginalised ‚ ¨ for doing so.

Employers need to lower the threshold for what they recognise as sexual harassment, have a heightened awareness of everyday, “dripping tap” sexism, and work hard to build a respectful workplace culture, he says.

And by encouraging bystanders to take an active role, employers will make people who have experienced harassment more likely to lodge formal complaints and reduce the risk of harassment in the future.

Passive bystanders often experience the same negative outcomes as targets, including reduced job satisfaction, conflict, occupational stress, and job withdrawal ‚ ¨ further incentive for employers to act, he adds.

Men have a unique role to play

Most men aren’t violent towards women, but they often don’t speak up when the men around them say things that are supportive of violence, or act in harassing ways, Flood says.

In his paper Men Speak Up, Flood says men who witness inappropriate behaviour can be more reluctant to intervene than women, particularly in front of other men.

One contributing factor is that they often overestimate other men’s comfort with problematic behaviour.

Another is the existence of a “gender gap” when it comes to understanding what constitutes harassment ‚ ¨ “Men tend to have poorer understandings of sexual harassment and domestic violence than women do”, Flood says.

But there are many “everyday ways” in which men who understand and care about the problem can make a difference.

“When a man questions a mate’s joke about rape or a colleague’s violence-supportive comment, he takes away the mate’s false assumption that everyone else agrees with him,” Flood says by way of example.

This increases the likelihood that his friend’s opinions and attitudes will shift, and that others will speak up as well.

“His actions break down peer support for violence again.”