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How the Bystander Effect Decreases Workplace Sexual Harassment

The nature of workplace sexual harassment training has traditionally been about averting accountability and not necessarily about creating a safe and respectful workplace for femme-identifying individuals, shown in the ways in which many of these training workshops have been facilitated. There often exists only two categories of people in the workplace: the harassers and the victims. With these outdated ideas of how certain people should navigate the workspace (women as potential victims, and men as potential predators), it begs the question: are these outdated harassment training practices simply reproducing a toxic culture that leaves women vulnerable to experiencing workplace sexual harassment, and the perpetrators of that harassment relatively unaccountable?

Many companies have continued to implement traditional harassment training practices into their workplace culture as a way to divert accountability for any instances of sexual harassment from the company’s end. This leaves many femme-identifying employees responsible for the difficult task of making decisions about legal actions against their attackers without any kind of institutional support.

However, as recently as October 4th, 2017, the EEOC has announced a new and improved sexual harassment training program meant to target the root of the sexual harassment issues within workplaces across the country. Rather than projecting the dichotomy of harasser and victim onto participants and instructing them on how not to fall into either of those roles, the EEOC’s improved approach to addressing sexual harassment includes the important role of a third party, the bystander.  

Research has shown that including instruction on how to be a good bystander during sexual harassment trainings has proven to be beneficial to the level of comfortability individuals have with peer-to-peer accountability tactics toward harassers, as well as peer-to-peer emotional support for victims of workplace harassment. This new training practice allows for responsible third parties to act as agents of surveillance in order to hold their offending peers accountable for their actions, especially in workplace climates that have a disproportionate number of men in power to women.

In teaching individuals how to maximize their power as a bystander, it also allows for those bystanding individuals who hold privilege to use their privilege to change the culture around sexual harassment in the professional world. In a recent study, it was found that participants in programs, like the recent one implemented by the EEOC, are more inclined to be responsive to diversity-minded material if it were coming from a person of power and privilege (read: white men) rather than if it came from someone of a relative minority group, like women of color. This results in people with privilege urging other people of privilege to change their mindsets and correct their harmful behaviors.

It seems like this new sexual harassment training practice is doing more good than its predecessors have, in terms of making sure that it genuinely educates folks on how to support victims of harassment and hold their harassers accountable, all while having the opportunity to use their privilege to change the mindsets of those who perpetuate the harmful culture of sexual harassment and urge them to correct their errors.

Featured Image by U.S. Army on Flickr

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