Standing up to harassment: the power of bystander training to transform workplace cultures
September 28, 2022
Most traditional anti-harassment training doesn’t work. Here’s what does.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), in its 2016 report, identified workplace civility training and bystander intervention training as promising options. Bystander intervention training has promising early research support as well. But it’s not effective only as a training module. Bystander approaches have the potential to transform workplace cultures.
One of the problems with traditional anti-harassment training is that it treats participants either as potential victims or as potential harassers. Since most employees are not victims and few see themselves as perpetrators, they often conclude that the training doesn’t apply to them. Some may even resent having to attend.
Bystander intervention training is different. It starts from the premise that everyone has a role to play in reducing workplace harassment, discrimination and violence. Participants are engaged not as potential perpetrators, but as allies and advocates for a respectful, inclusive workplace.
Bystander intervention training is more than just teaching employees how to intervene when they witness workplace harassment. That’s part of the training, of course. But equally if not more important, the bystander approach lets everyone contribute. It makes everyone part of the solution. It asks employees to commit to one another, and to themselves, that if they see something, they’ll say something. It empowers the team, working together, to establish, enforce and live their values.
In short, the bystander approach creates community responsibility that promotes cultural change. In a workplace infused with this approach, harassment, violence and discrimination won’t flourish because “we” – not merely management or HR, but the team working together – won’t let it.
Of course, if would be naïve to assume a one-off training session will achieve large-scale cultural change on its own. What happens before and after the training also matters.
As my colleague Suhaib wrote recently about all forms of anti-harassment training, support from the top is necessary, and training should happen regularly to reinforce learning and support broader cultural change efforts.
Peer leaders are also invaluable. The more the organization can recruit influential peers as anti-harassment role models, the more the culture of bystander intervention will spread throughout the organization.
As well, employers should take steps at regular intervals after each training session to follow up with employees and encourage their own reflection. What are employees’ personal values when it comes to respect and workplace culture? How have employees applied the training in their daily lives? Have employees witnessed disrespectful behaviour at work, and how did they respond? What could employees do that would help them feel more comfortable speaking up in the future? What could management do? Bystander intervention training, in other words, is an important piece of a broader approach to anti-harassment – and that approach has the potential to transform workplaces for the better.