Tackling harassment in the workplace needs organisations to think and act differently.

Reactive management of sexual harassment is common, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission, whose National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces reported in March:

“Current approaches to preventing and responding to sexual harassment in workplaces are inadequate. They typically focus on policies that prohibit sexual harassment and complaint mechanisms for workers to report it. They are reactive, legalistic and often contribute to ongoing (albeit unintended) harm to workers. These approaches, which have remained largely unchanged for”.

The inquiry was established in 2018, in light of the #metoo movement and the Commission’s own findings reported that one in three workers had been sexually harassed in the previous five years, with fewer than 20% making a formal complaint.

I agree.  I often feel that we are too focused on communicating our policies when we should be acknowledging that the majority of people in any workspace are good people with healthy attitudes and viewpoints.  Furthermore, we should listen to other studies which suggest many people in workplaces often witness harassment and other abusive behaviour but don’t intervene.

If we asked why people don’t intervene, we would discover it’s often either because people don’t know how to respond, nor do they feel they would be supported if they did.

If we really want to reduce levels of sexual harassment and other forms of abusive behaviour in the workplace, in my view this is where the focus needs to be.

In the last years of my policing career I developed an interest in looking at the prevention of abuse and violence using a lens of leadership.  When I use the term leadership, I’m referring to both organisational and personal leadership.  I firmly believe the answers to many issues lie in communities.  I would include workplaces in my definition of a community.

There’s a saying “In moments of crisis, look for the helpers”.  My passion is engaging the bystander.  They are the ‘untapped resource’ that we lecture rather than engage.  It’s no surprise to me that they don’t step up, especially in a work setting.

As a police officer I would often interview witnesses to violence.  In many cases, even when friends were involved, witnesses would say I knew something was about to happen.  Back then I became frustrated at the lack of action.  Now I understand the ‘train of thought’ of a bystander and why so many don’t intervene.

Also, as a police officer I was given tools to do my job.  I was given powers to arrest and search, a set of handcuffs, a radio as well as conflict resolution skills.  Now, I’m not advocating the handing out of handcuffs to staff, but we do need to equip them with tools and knowledge to be the leaders we need them to be. 

This week I’ve finished a training with a leading Scottish legal firm.  I was invited earlier this year to meet the firm’s CEO and their HR department.  They had become aware of my approach to these issues. 

My journey of understanding around violence prevention started back in 2009 when I joined the Scottish Violence reduction Unit.  I started to see things that had previously been invisible to me.  I started to see that violence in all its forms is committed mainly by men, with other men being the main victim group.  I also started to see that in cases of sexual violence, its girls and women that make up the main victim group.  And whilst I acknowledge that men are victims of sexual harassment, I see violence as very much a male issue that requires men to do more.  Intervening at the time of an incident is too late.  We need men to be challenging the culture which supports many forms of sexual abuse.

Anyway, at this meeting with the CEO it became clear he was starting to realise this to.  A recent report by the International Bar Association highlighted a high number of female victims of sexual harassment within the legal profession.  The CEO simply said he wasn’t aware how bad this issue was and wanted to do something different.

My approach is straight forward and one that recognises that the majority of employees in any organisation are good healthy individuals who just want to do a good job for their employer.  I don’t aim to create experts.  More my aim is to spark curiosity around the issues.

I often say in my training that violence and abuse have the potential to be deeply personal to each and every one of us.  We have all read the annual domestic abuse statistics or about the numbers of cases of sexual harassment. 

Do we ever stop and consider that behind these numbers are people we care about, love, work and socialise with?

When I make it personal like this, I help get a group ready for learning.  Common purpose is a great persuader don’t you think?

My aims are simple:

  • Raise awareness of the issue(s)
  • Open dialog
  • Challenge thinking, and
  • Inspire leadership

Opening a dialog is important.  When you create discussion, just watch the healthy views rise to the surface.  Many people don’t intervene because they don’t know if their colleagues think as they do.  The reality is they do.  It often takes one person to act, allowing others to step up as well.  Despite what some recent academic studies suggest, the  bystander-effect is still very real.  We all must learn to overcome group inaction.

Creating discussion also raises awareness of issues, inspiring people to do more in their workplace.  I also provide participants with a toolkit.  A set of options that help them when they witness problematic situations.  Intervention doesn’t have to be risky, and it can make a difference to a victim of abuse.

Anyone one of us can support a victim.  Saying to a colleague who has suffered harassment or any other form of abuse that they were not to blame is so important.  Validating a victim’s experience is a tool we can all make use of in those first few minutes.

Now all this sounds too easy.  I know It’s not. I know that despite having a toolkit many bystanders will still do nothing.

Bystanders will be more likely to intervene when they feel supported in doing so.  In my recent training the CEO of the firm took part.  He involved himself.  He admitted that previously, he hadn’t taken these issues seriously.  He talked about his own daughters and their experiences of harassment.  He talked about his values and the values of the organisation and that he wanted the training to send out a message that bystander action would be supported. 

I firmly believe that ‘leaders create other leaders’ and I saw that in my training session.  People talked openly about their own experiences and how they felt the new knowledge, the toolkit as well as the message from the CEO, gave them a clearer role in helping their organisation create a safe and supportive workplace.

When I’m asked how to respond to issues of abuse in any setting I always respond as follows – “What are you doing about improving relationships?”  Workplaces need to spend more time developing healthy and supportive relationships than simply reminding staff of their behaviour policies. 

Investing in these types of conversations in my view is the missing piece.  As I said at the start, bystanders are an untapped resource.  Organisations who work to engage this asset will reduce harassment and other forms of abuse.  That I have no doubt.

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