Reforming bullies is very difficult, but training witnesses to intervene is an effective alternative.
Despite studies showing that bystander training is one of the most effective ways to reduce harassment and bullying in a workplace, it’s still rare. Dr David Rock, director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, has worked with several organisations to develop their strategies. He explains his philosophy through an expansion of a popular phrase.
Create a disruption
“If you see something, you have a responsibility to say something, and you have an even bigger responsibility to say it in a way that’s helpful for the victim and perpetrator. The central challenge is to help bystanders feel more comfortable speaking up and a perpetrator less threatened when they’re called out,” Rock says.
There are varying approaches to this challenge. Many suggest it’s best to not directly confront the perpetrator because that can make the situation worse. They recommend alternative tactics such as creating a disruption. Calling the person you see being harassed into a meeting can be effective.
Victim engagement after the fact is of utmost importance. Having a witness talk to the victim about the experience – letting them know that others saw what happened and asking if they’re okay – validates the victim’s perception and prevents feelings of isolation. The witness can also offer to help the victim to report the incident.
“Bystander training works best if you give people specific scripts they can follow, such as how to interact if you see someone bullying, being non-inclusive or biased,” says Rock.
“These scripts can help to turn down both the anxiety and the threat. People can practise a script and get comfortable with it in minutes in the right setup.”
There is no one perfect set of scripts. “Ultimately it’s about reducing social threat, which for our institute means the five domains of SCARF: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. The best scripts address all five of those issues and they let people know their status is not being attacked, nothing strange is going to happen, they have choices, you are on their side and you are treating them fairly.”
He says the underlying message of traditional compliance training – “Go to HR when you see something; don’t interact” – does not train for the middle ground where the issues are not important enough to report to HR, but should be called out. For example, if a manager is accidentally rude to a team member.
“Companies need to encourage people to speak up in a respectful manner, and let their employees know that it’s what they want. Incentivising people for calling out issues is not necessarily a good idea. These are private conversations, so it’s not something you want to track and reward.”
Training your employees to be active bystanders has the advantages of less conflict in the long run and greater engagement.
This article originally appeared in the March 2019 edition of HRM magazine.
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