Best Practices for Bystander Intervention Training

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Building a positive, inclusive workplace culture can be a competitive advantage in attracting, hiring, and retaining top talent, especially in a tight job market.

As part of a comprehensive strategy to improve workplace culture, organizations can benefit from compliance and harassment-prevention training that goes beyond the basic requirements to encompass equally critical topics like diversity and inclusion, unconscious bias, and bystander intervention.

That last one is particularly powerful. In the era of #MeToo, bystander intervention training is gaining momentum as more and more employers see its value as part of an effective strategy to combat sexual harassment and foster safer, more respectful, and more inclusive workplaces.

Once used primarily on college campuses and in the military, bystander intervention training is now recognized as one of the most effective ways to stop workplace misconduct, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace. As the task force’s co-chair, Chai R. Feldblum, put it, “With leadership support, bystander intervention training could be a game changer in the workplace.”

But what does effective bystander intervention training look like? At its core, it should be interactive, engaging, and relevant to a 21st-century workforce. Leaders can ensure their programs meet that criteria by doing the following:

1. Demystifying the Concept of Bystander Intervention

Many bystanders who observe misconduct in the workplace remain on the sidelines because they are reluctant to get involved in awkward or threatening situations. Others don’t intervene because they are unsure of what to say or do. By explaining the role of active bystanders and how they can safely respond, either directly or indirectly, bystander intervention training helps employees overcome these hurdles.

2. Raising Awareness of Different Bystander Situations

Employees should be prepared to intervene in all kinds of situations, not just those involving sexual harassment. Interactive videos can be one powerful tool to raise awareness of the impact of a bystander’s actions (or inaction) in various scenarios. When employees see clear examples of the kinds of situations in which bystander intervention may be called for, they’ll have a better understanding of when and how to act.

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3. Demonstrating Common Intervention Techniques

While no two situations are alike, the most common bystander intervention techniques fall into four categories: disrupt, confront, support, and report.

  1. Disrupting the situation: This technique focuses on distracting the harasser, the target of the harassment, or both, depending upon the circumstances. Sometimes, all it takes is changing the topic of discussion or starting a conversation with the person being harassed.
  2. Confronting the harasser: This doesn’t mean being confrontational or jumping in to say something in the heat of the moment. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center advises, “Whether or not you know the harasser, you can intervene by telling them in a respectful, direct, and honest way that their words or actions are not okay.” Intervening by saying, “That’s so inappropriate,” “Why would you say that?” or “What you just said made me feel uncomfortable” sends a message to the harasser and others that you recognize the unacceptable behavior and the organization doesn’t tolerate it.
  3. Supporting the target: One way employees can be advocates and allies is by showing support and empathy for a target of harassment or other misconduct. Talking directly with someone after an incident, offering to go with them to HR, or reassuring them what happened is not their fault can help alleviate the sense of isolation a target may feel. What counts is saying or doing something and sharing the responsibility for speaking up against abusive behavior, whether it’s overt harassment or microaggressions.
  4. Reporting the incident: Reporting inappropriate conduct is key to keeping toxic behaviors out of the workplace. Any bystander intervention training should clearly explain the organization’s procedures and options for reporting, whether that involves talking with a supervisor or HR manager or using an anonymous hotline or app. Whether they are witnesses or targets of harassment, employees should be reassured they are protected against retaliation for speaking up and reporting incidents.

Empower Employees Who Witness Misconduct

In planning to meet the recruiting and retention challenges of 2020, organizations should consider the benefits of bystander intervention training. By empowering employees and managers with the skills they need to speak up against toxic behavior and help prevent future incidents, organizations can take a powerful step toward building safer, more inclusive cultures — the kinds of cultures people want to work in.

As part of a holistic approach to improving workplace culture, bystander intervention training can be vital to increasing employee engagement and creating a harassment-free workplace that promotes diversity, inclusion, and allyship.

Andrew Rawson is cofounder and chief learning officer of Traliant.

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