Bystander intervention training is the only research-backed solution for preventing workplace sexual harassment. The Chicago Tribune, New York Times and Harvard Business Review all published reports in the last year highlighting this research.
I have seen this method work as a facilitator of bystander intervention trainings for over a decade. More than 5,000 people are “intervention allies” at college campuses and businesses of all sizes, from IBM to local hair salons, as a result of bystander intervention training.
Despite all the recent media attention, there is a glaring gap reporting on why training bystanders works when other methods fail. What makes bystander intervention training so effective?
Old-school anti-harassment trainings drill employees on the rules of conduct. This misses the mark by focusing on changing the behaviors of a few bad actors. Instead of telling people what not to do, bystander intervention training teaches everyone what to do in uncomfortable situations. This shifts the focus onto empowering good people, who vastly outnumber the bad.
Sexual violence and harassment are pervasive crimes perpetrated by a small percentage of people, while the majority of good people are silent witnesses. There is a term for this phenomenon — “The Bystander Effect” — which is when people witness something bad happening but do nothing to help.
Most good people feel powerless to intervene, and this is the problem that bystander intervention training solves. In bystander intervention training, participants are taught social awareness skills so they can recognize early and subtle warning signs. They are also taught what to do and what to say to stop negative behaviors in the workplace and beyond. By shifting the focus and responsibility to everyone, it discourages victim-blaming and offers everyone a chance to change social norms.
As a facilitator, I share personal and relatable stories that illustrate key lessons and prepare participants for real-world intervention. I always share my experience of intervening to stop an incident of racism and harassment on the Chicago Metra. While riding home one night, I was startled when a young man across the aisle started using racial slurs to heckle an elderly Hispanic man sitting a few seats away from me.
My heart raced and I glanced around to see if anyone else would speak up. The train car was full of people, all silent witnesses. After a few more seconds of harassment, I pushed past the butterflies in my stomach and loudly stated, “Stop. You are making everyone uncomfortable.”
As soon as I broke the silence, others immediately chimed in to back me up. It turns out the train car was full of good people who wanted to speak up. The point is, don’t be silent; silence equals condoning. You may need to be the first to speak up, but you won’t be alone. Your actions have a profound influence on others, and when you do what’s right, there are good people all around you who will back you up.
Bystander intervention training offers a way for every organization to be proactive and not reactive, commit to positive change, shift responsibility to everyone and be positively recognized for their efforts. Every business should seize this opportunity to protect their most valuable investment: their people.
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