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Bystander Intervention in the Workplace

By Maeve O’Keeffe

UCC’s Bystander Intervention Programme is, by nature, focused on changing attitudes and behaviours here on campus, and empowering bystanders and witnesses of inappropriate actions to speak out and intervene when safe to do so. As the programme grows, however, there has been an increased appetite for adaptations of the programme for other contexts. One such context in which there is a pertinent need to introduce bystander intervention training is in the workplace.

Statistics from the UK indicate that an astonishing 60% of women have had a male colleague behave in an inappropriate manner towards them, and one in eight women have left a job due to sexual harassment. These figures may seem unbelievable, but in reality, they may underestimate the extent of the issue. Many victims of sexual harassment in the workplace may feel reluctant to report due to fears of jeopardising their career, being perceived as difficult, and worries that there is insufficient proof of the harassment to be believed. Power imbalances and colleague dynamics can act as further deterrents from reporting. In many cases, the individual who has been subjected to harassment may not even know who to approach regarding an instance of misconduct in the workplace, and so choose to put up with the situation as opposed to speak out. Not all workplaces have HR departments, and if the allegation is being made against someone who is more senior to you in the workplace, making a report can feel daunting. It may seem like the risk of being branded as troublesome or untruthful, or losing one’s job outweigh any potential benefits to making a formal complaint.

The MeToo movement may have opened our eyes to sexual harassment in Hollywood, but it would be naïve to say that this type of behaviour is limited to the movie industry. It is an unfortunate reality that discrimination and outdated attitudes still manifest in many modern workplaces. Whether it’s a slimy customer who calls you a “good girl,” and places a hand on your hip as you serve his table, a hospital patient saying you’re not that bad for a black nurse, an interviewer asking you if you plan on getting pregnant any time soon, a sleazy wink, leering, and sexual comments from a colleague in the hallways, or the implicit expectation that the women will put on the kettle on for tea and wash up in the staff room at breaktime, there a multitude of ways in which people experience occupational harassment and prejudice. It can come from clients, customers, and colleagues, all the way up to management. Individually, these behaviours might seem insignificant, and not worth reporting, but as Laura Bates explains in her book Everyday Sexism, “The more such incidents crop up […], the more they lubricate the wheels of a system that comfortable maintains the […] hierarchical status quo,” making it even more challenging for victims to speak out.

 This was evident as horseracing was recently faced with scandal when Bryony Frost accused fellow jockey Robbie Dunne of intimidation and bullying. Dunne was ultimately found guilty of bullying by the British Horseracing Authority, and was subsequently banned from horseracing for 18 months, with three months suspended. One has to question how his inappropriate conduct in the weighing room went unchallenged for so long, with Frost saying she felt isolated after making her allegations. Trainer and former jockey Gay Kelleway spoke to Sky News at the time, commending Frost’s bravery in speaking out against a “rancid” weighing room culture that female jockeys were just expected to accept for years. Workplace harassment can occur in secluded offices or bustling bars, with no witnesses at all, or a host of bystanders who maintain that it’s all just a bit of craic, or part and parcel of the working environment. In this instance, the BHA report into the allegations (which was leaked to the Sunday Times) concluded that there was a cultural issue within weighing rooms, where “threatening behaviour is condoned and not reported.”

This case is reflective of the potential benefits of introducing a bystander intervention approach in workplaces. Rather than alienating potential victims and potential perpetrators, bystander intervention aims to leverage all members of the community to set the tone for what is perceived as acceptable and unacceptable within that group. It can prompt a cultural change towards more respectful and equal working environments by speaking to everyone in their capacity to speak out when someone in the workplace acts inappropriately. Alone, speaking out against harassment is intimidating, but when we know that there are supportive colleagues who are also opposed to misconduct, taking a stand becomes a lot easier.

Given how frequently concerns about workplace harassment are dismissed and undermined (“Political correctness is gone mad, you can’t say anything anymore, it’s harmless!”), it’s important to know that making an intervention might not even require making a formal complaint. The bystander intervention approach does not seek to ruin the capacity to have a harmless joke among work friends, but rather to highlight when the “banter” is actually offensive, and to empower people to articulate why it is inappropriate. What someone might understand as a hilarious skit might actually contribute to cultures of discrimination, endorse harassing behaviours for perpetrators, and make many individuals feel uncomfortable. Again, an intervention need not necessarily involve a dramatic confrontation over the photocopier. Even just jokingly asking a colleague, “Did you really just say that? Are we in the 1960s or something?” can make them think twice about making an offensive joke again. Even if it feels uncomfortable to intervene in such a way in the moment, we can all be attentive to our co-workers, and check in on them after an incident, showing them support and understanding.