Bystander intervention key to reducing sexual harassment in workplaces

Tuesday, 07 August, 2012



Sexual harrasment is a key issue in Australian workplaces. In a recently published report titled ‘Encourage. Support. Act!: Bystander approaches to sexual harassment in the workplace’,  Paula McDonald, Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and Michael Flood, University of Wollongong, demonstrate the potential for bystander approaches to make a real difference in preventing and addressing sexual harassment as a costly and damaging workplace harm. Read on to find out more.

In Australia, 22% of women aged 18-64 and 5% men aged 18-64 years experience sexual harassment in the workplace, informs Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Australian Human Rights Commission, in her foreword for the sexual harassment bystander research.

Almost one-third of all complaints received by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2010-11 under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 related to sexual harassment, she adds.

The research paper written by Paula McDonald from QUT and Michael Flood from the University of Wollongong, is a comprehensive examination of the way bystander intervention can be applied to addressing sexual harassment in workplaces, drawn from the role it is playing in other areas such as whistle blowing, racial harassment, workplace bullying and antiviolence, said Commissioner Broderick.

“Bystander approaches focus on the ways in which individuals who are not the targets of the conduct can intervene in violence, harassment or other antisocial behaviour in order to prevent and reduce harm to others,” Broderick said.

Broderick said that organisations that are employers have a significant role to play in supporting such intervention. Below are some excerpts from McDonald and Flood’s research report.

Who are bystanders?

Bystanders are individuals who observe sexual harassment firsthand or are subsequently informed of the incident. This definition includes both ‘passive’ bystanders (those who take no action) and ‘active’ bystanders (those who take action to prevent or reduce the harm). This inclusive definition of bystanders is not limited to people who have witnessed the event or incident. It also includes those who subsequently hear about the event.

Lessons from bystander approaches in other areas

A number of explanations have emerged for the motivations and actions of bystanders. The research draws on a number of aligned areas to highlight how they may be useful for developing practical bystander interventions to address sexual harassment in the workplace. These areas include including whistleblowing, organisational ethics, workplace bullying and workplace health and safety. For instance, the research into whistleblowing shows that despite the existence of legislation that allows for whistleblowing, a greater determinant as to whether or not whistleblowers will act is whether they anticipate anything will change.[1]

If there is a perception that there will be minimal change, then it is less likely that people will expose the conduct. There is a small but growing body of evidence that demonstrates that supporting bystander intervention strategies can increase the willingness of people to take action, their sense of efficacy in doing so and their actual participation in bystander behaviour.

Legal and organisational challenges

There are a number of important legal and organisational challenges associated with the translation of bystander approaches from other areas of study to workplace sexual harassment. These include vicarious liability, victimisation and occupational health and safety. Vicarious liability provisions exist in state and federal antidiscrimination legislation. Under these provisions, an employer will be liable for the discriminatory actions of her, his or its employee or agent unless the employer has taken reasonable steps to prevent the sexual harassment.

The involvement of bystanders, who may include co-workers as well as those in positions of organisational authority who have had sexual harassment reported to them, raises important questions about what an employer must do in order to have taken reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment from occurring and thus to avoid liability for the conduct of their employees or agents. The related issues of victimisation of bystanders and aiding and abetting are also important in terms of organisational risk.

The way co-workers cooperate within a workplace health and safety framework to establish and maintain a safe and healthy work environment also plays a role in mobilising the support of bystanders. While the focus in this area has been on physical safety, there is increasing recognition of its capacity to also address psychosocial safety elements such as sexual harassment. Importantly, such workplace health and safety strategies have been found to be highly effective. [2]

Recent work has also indicated that the involvement of bystanders in workplace safety can lead to reshaping the traditional norms, which influence men’s and women’s behaviour and are associated with sexual harassment and other gendered forms of mistreatment at work.

Applying bystander approaches to sexual harassment in the workplace

Education about bystander intervention is a potentially invaluable element for preventing sexual harassment in the workforce. 

Efforts to reduce and prevent workplace sexual harassment will only make real progress if the principles and strategies shown to constitute best practice in violence prevention are adopted. Effective interventions have five generic features, all of which are likely to have relevance for the development of bystander approaches to sexual harassment:

  • adopting multiple strategies to address the problem behaviour, in multiple settings and at multiple levels;[3]
  • demonstrating a sound understanding of both the problem - of the workings and causes of sexual harassment itself - and of how it can be changed;[4]
  • invoking educational, communication and other strategies known to create change - ensuring they focus on determinants of this behaviour, use effective teaching methods and have sufficient duration and intensity to produce change;[5]
  • developing bystander interventions that have regard to the context (ie, the social and structural constraints and the operating beliefs and norms);[6] and
  • involving a comprehensive process of impact evaluation that is integrated into program design and implementation.[7]

A range of bystander strategies could be implemented in workplaces to address sexual harassment. The principles and strategies identified for developing and implementing bystander approaches to sexual harassment in the workplace include:

Principles and strategies for developing and implementing bystander approaches to sexual harassment
Principles informing the strategies Strategies
  Primary prevention - training Secondary prevention - reporting and investigating Tertiary prevention - supporting bystanders
Design comprehensive programs, using multiple strategies, settings and levels

Design training to:

  • increase recognition of sexual harassment
  • include content which addresses different forms of bystander involvement and challenge myths of sexual harassment
  • address the links between sexual harassment and other forms of gender inequalities
  • define sexual harassment by focusing on the behaviour rather than the response

Make social responsibility norms evident in the workplace; acknowledge bystanders can be individuals or respond collectively

Use modelling in training modules to demonstrate how bystanders can assist

Deliver training to all employees

Respond and investigate complaints in a timely way

Allow employees to participate in the design of complaints procedures

Establish what constitutes sexual harassment in the organisation

Create a workplace environment that allows for reporting sexual harassment

Give management credit for taking action to encourage reporting

Preserve the anonymity of bystanders who disclose

Address the risks of victimisation to the bystander

Implement appropriate penalties for harassment when it occurs

Provide multiple communication channels for bystanders and targets

Acknowledge that some organisational actors are more vulnerable

Support bystanders who may have experienced the negative impacts of sexual harassment

Enlist the support of bystanders to assist targets of sexual harassment in the longer term

Implement ongoing monitoring and evaluation of bystander strategies

Develop an appropriate theoretical framework
Incorporate educational, communication and other change strategies
Locate bystander approaches in the relevant context
Include impact evaluation in the bystander approach

Conclusion

McDonald and Flood's report has outlined the potential application of new and creative bystander approaches to addressing sexual harassment in the workplace. Studies on sexual harassment have been integrated with a range of theoretical and empirical research on bystander approaches as they apply in the context of workplace bullying, racial harassment, whistleblowing, violence in intimate relationships, workplace justice frameworks and employee voice. Research shows that bystander approaches and interventions can be potent tools in raising awareness of sexual harassment and, ultimately, in eliminating this costly, damaging and increasingly pervasive problem in workplaces.

However, the adoption, implementation and evaluation of bystander approaches can only be effective for addressing workplace sexual harassment provided they are oriented towards the specific contexts of sexual harassment. They must also be crafted for use in the typical situations in which sexual harassment takes place. And above all, they must be supported by organisational change. Considering such complex issues poses significant challenges. Responding to sexual harassment through bystander interventions may also be relevant in other areas covered by Australian law, including in the provision of goods and services and accommodation.

To read the entire research report, visit http://www.humanrights.gov.au/sexualharassment/bystander/.

[1] J Near, T Morehead Dworkin and M Miceli, ‘Explaining the whistleblowing process: suggestions from power theory and justice theory’ (1993) 4(3) Organization Science, pp. 393-411; A Trimmer, ‘Whistleblowing: what it is and what it might mean for incorporated legal practices’ (2004) February Law Society Journal, p. 69.

[2] T MacDermott, ‘The duty to provide a harassment-free work environment’ (1995) 37(4) Journal of Industrial Relations, pp. 495-523.

[3] E Casey and T Lindhorst, ‘Toward a multi-level, ecological approach to the primary prevention of sexual assault: prevention in peer and community contexts’ (2009) 10(2) Trauma, Violence & Abuse, pp. 91-114; M Nation, C Crusto, A Wandersman, K Kumpfer, D Seybolt, E Morrissey- Kane and K Davino, ‘What works in prevention: principles of effective prevention programs’ (2003) 58(6/7) American Psychologist, pp. 449-56.

[4] M Flood, L Fergus and M Heenan, Respectful Relationships Education: Violence prevention and respectful relationships education in Victorian secondary schools, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, State of Victoria, (2009), pp. 33-35.

[5] M Flood, L Fergus and M Heenan, Respectful Relationships Education: Violence prevention and respectful relationships education in Victorian secondary schools, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, State of Victoria, (2009), pp. 35-54.

[6] E Casey and T Lindhorst, ‘Toward a multi-level, ecological approach to the primary prevention of sexual assault: prevention in peer and community contexts’ (2009) 10(2) Trauma, Violence & Abuse, pp. 91-114; M Flood, L Fergus and M Heenan, Respectful Relationships Education: Violence prevention and respectful relationships education in Victorian secondary schools, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, State of Victoria, (2009), pp. 55-56.

[7] M Flood, L Fergus and M Heenan, Respectful Relationships Education: Violence prevention and respectful relationships education in Victorian secondary schools, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, State of Victoria, (2009), pp. 57-58.

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