4 effective ways to prevent workplace harassment

bystander harassment
Girard Dorney


written on December 18, 2017

Traditional approaches to harassment training aren’t effective, research reveals. But some more unconventional methods are.

Ask your average employee what they thought of their harassment training and you’ll find most of them either only vaguely remember it, or they found it memorably funny. At one of my first jobs I watched a hammily acted training video where the message was “don’t be a monster”. I wasn’t a monster, but for some reason I don’t think it was because of the video.

As HRM has written about recently, research has shown that most organisations’ harassment training isn’t working, and that in some cases they encourage negative gender biases.

Part of the problem is the reason behind the establishment of the training. It’s often conducted in order to prevent liability, and not the harassment itself. So it’s perfectly adequate from a legal standpoint, as it lays out unacceptable behaviour in a way that could be referred to in the dismissal of an offending employee, but it fails to stop offences.

That’s because focusing on what employees aren’t allowed to do is an approach that assumes naivete on the part of abusers; that their behaviour is due to ignorance. But hoping to comprehensively prevent workplace harassment by outlining what constitutes harassment is as sensible as trying to prevent shoplifting with a sign that defines “theft”.

If 2017 has taught us anything, it’s that merely reacting to the worst of harassment – in some cases years after it began – isn’t enough. The risk of damage to your organisation now goes far beyond distraught employees. Turnover in a company with cultural problems is high, and reputational harm makes it more difficult to hire.

Train witnesses on how to act

So what training actually works?

In a recent story for the New York Times, programs that empower bystanders to act are put forward as a proven solution. Successfully utilised in the US military and on college campuses, this training gives people a series of choices of what to do if they see harassment.

Due to a risk of escalation, most don’t advise directly getting involved. Those that do, offer techniques like interrupting the harassment by asking the victim to come to a meeting.

Some of the training programs also suggest confronting the harasser after the fact, if you feel comfortable. They stress that you should only ask questions (because accusations get you nowhere) and to keep your queries focused on behaviour, such as “were you aware how that conversation appeared?”

But the ultimate focus of training that empowers bystanders is about talking to the victim after the event, and supporting them. They advise offering to help the victim make a complaint, but also stress that one of the most beneficial things you can do is let them know that they weren’t the ones in the wrong.

It’s easy to understand why this approach works. Firstly, providing witnesses the tools they need to step in and deal with bad behaviour helps overcome the bystander effect – the phenomenon where multiple witnesses don’t do anything because each is waiting for someone else to react first.

Secondly, by offering prevention training to potential bystanders you’re essentially telling all employees that your culture not only doesn’t accept harassment, it’s proactively against it.

Finally, having victims be supported can give them the confidence that their complaint will be heard.

Other methods

The Times’ article outlines other ways to approach sexual harassment training that have also proven effective, including:

  • Foster civility. Again this is focused on telling people what they should do rather what they can’t do. It involves modelling what your organisation considers respectful behaviour and inviting participation from employees – so they set the standard for themselves.
  • Promote more women. The research is in on how this prevents sexual harassment – it just works. It also helps to reduce the pay gap in your organisation, and have a mix of men and women on most teams.
  • Have your training be ongoing, tailored for your workplace, and conducted by the employees’ supervisor.

Better understand how you can help address sexual harassment in your organisation or university, with AHRI’s new eLearning modules for organisationsuniversities and managers.

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One thought on “4 effective ways to prevent workplace harassment

  1. There is no silver bullet when it comes to stopping bullying and harassment. It needs ongoing education firstly, so that workers know how to identify, prevent and manage it.

    I was badly bullied years ago, but didn’t know that is what it was, so I never reported it.

    I just thought I was hated for no reason and given a very hard time by a group of women (mobbed), for no reason. I was sick to the level of contemplating suicide. I spent many days at home, and was unproductive to the level of almost losing my job.

    Fortunately I was eventually able to turn that situation around. Had I had the education however, I would never have suffered so very badly in the first place.

    There was one up-stander (rather than a bystander) who recognised my plight. She helped me through and I will always be grateful for her support during that time.

    Being able to prevent bullying, harassment, discrimination and unresolved conflict, is through practice of learned skills and knowledge, being assertive.

    There are 3 main parties in the bullying dynamic. The target – who becomes a victim if they don’t have the ability to identify and manage it, the alleged bully, who needs to understand that their actions are bullying, that those will not be accepted and make positive changes. If they continue they will need to leave the organisation.

    Then there is a bystander. As the article quite rightly says, the bystander is a powerful person who can make a positive difference. They become the up-stander, offer to help, be a supportive witness, and report bullying as necessary.

    There will be times when bullying, harassment, discrimination and unresolved conflict do affect workers. These need to be immediately (at most within 72 hours) assessed.

    Mediation often helps as an early intervention. For serious cases, these need to be dealt with through independent investigation – for impartiality and effective professional levels of assistance.

    Bullies who don’t change their ways need to be exited, not moved sideways or even upwards in the organisation.

    There needs to be an independent bullying hotline for organisations where there are endemic issues such as in hospitals, schools, Defence, emergency responders and other organisations where a hierarchy creates inequality, privilege and often abuse of power.

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