Don’t just stand by.
Bystander intervention is a term borne out of heightened awareness of street harassment – that is, harassment that takes place in public places such as on public transport, in nightclubs and bars, even schools and universities. It seeks to galvanise individuals to act when they witness someone being harassed in order to create safe public spaces.
A noteworthy concept, especially considering the far-reaching and “relentless” harassment women and girls endure in public places highlighted in the Commons women and equalities committee report published this week (Tuesday 23 October).
The report suggests that women and girls are “harassed so frequently that it becomes a routine part of everyday life” – it’s become a “normalised” behaviour”. However, as the committee’s chair Maria Miller warned, “it is not acceptable that women have to change their behaviour to avoid sexual harassment”.
The onus can no longer be placed on women to deter perpetrators or avoid situations where they may be “at risk”. Harassment of women and girls has a “wider effect on society” and, Miller continues, “we must confront some deeply uncomfortable truths about our society…Laws alone cannot solve the cultural acceptability of sexual harassment”.
The same can be said for the workplace. Policies, procedures and codes of behaviour are not enough to protect employees from harassment. Bystander intervention is therefore as relevant to tackling workplace harassment as to street harassment.
First and foremost, bystander intervention means observing those people and situations around you, and acting on it – it’s proactive empathy. We have a duty of care to one another in the workplace, so let’s look after each other! Here are some useful points to take on board:
Are you aware of a situation unfolding in front of you? Have you identified a change in a colleagues’ behaviour? Can you see someone who is suffering?
Approach the victim, not the perpetrator
It’s important to note here that bystander intervention does not mean donning a cape and assuming the role of a superhero. If you feel able (and safe) to do so when witnessing an incident of bullying or harassment, approach the victim and ask if they’re ok. This helps dissolve the situation by disarming the perpetrator but also facilitates the removal of the victim from the scene.
If you’re not able to intervene then and there, approach the victim at another time, check in with them, tell them what you’ve seen and encourage them to speak out against the behaviour.
I have often highlighted that harassment in the workplace thrives on shame and silence. Whether calling out the behaviour and intervening as an incident unfolds, encouraging the victim to speak out by reporting their harasser to their manager, HR or to an independent employee support line such as Tell Jane, or reporting an incident you have witnessed yourself, exposing this behaviour is the most valuable thing you can do.
Record, record, record
Don’t forget to record your observations, actions and conversations as a bystander. These are incredibly valuable for context and for processing complaints.
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