HR Leads Business

May 8, 2018 | Michele Paludi, Ph.D., HRCI Guest Blogger

3 Ways to Make Anti-Sexual Harassment Efforts a Collective Responsibility

There is no doubt that organizations must have a zero tolerance toward sexual harassment, but it is also crucial that all members of the organization play an active role in preventing and responding to incidents of sexual harassment.

Recent allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Matt Lauer and countless others in Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C. have taught us that sexual harassment is often facilitated by colleagues who knew about the harassment but maintained their silence.

What accounts for such bystander apathy? Research by John Darley and Bibb Latane explained it by “diffusion of responsibility.” When we witness what we label as sexual harassment, we may believe that one of our colleagues will intervene. Consequently, we feel less responsible for assisting the victim or reporting the incident. This silence reinforces our fear of retaliation for speaking up about sexual harassment.

Related to diffusion of responsibility is “pluralistic ignorance.” We may notice that no one else is reacting to the perceived sexual harassment. Thus, we believe our personal assistance is not needed. When we view the inaction of our colleagues, we perceive the incident as not being serious and/or we may have mislabeled the behavior. As a result, we impose self-silence.

We know we can prevent this “bystander apathy” through proper education and training programs. Such programs have reduced bullying behavior and increased reporting of bullying among children and adolescents.

How can HR departments help witnesses avoid bystander apathy? I offer three recommendations for responding to bystander apathy and making sexual harassment efforts a collective responsibility in organizations.

3 Ways to Encourage Employees to Speak Up

  1. Doing the Right Thing: Incorporate diffusion of responsibility and pluralistic ignorance explanations into training programs on sexual harassment. Ensure a discussion of retaliation is included, citing legal and organizational protection for exercising ones right to speak up about sexual harassment.
  2. Silence is Not Golden: In policies on sexual harassment, include sanctions for witnesses of sexual harassment who maintain silence when they have information pertinent to the investigation.
  3. In it Together: Facilitate active bystander training for employees. These programs assist us in recognizing how to analyze situations and evaluate the consequences of our actions. The focus is on responsible action to assist colleagues rather than remaining silent. I recommend training include the following topics:
  • What to say to the target of sexual harassment.
  • What to say to the initiator of sexually harassing behavior.
  • Ways to recruit allies.
  • How to determine whether intervention is needed.
  • Keeping active bystanders safe.
  • Active bystanders working with investigators of sexual harassment complaints.

I also ask organizations to consider a recommendationoffered by Margaret Mead in 1978. She argued that rather than focusing on new laws on sexual harassment, we need to offer a different type of restriction: a new taboo against this form of workplace violence. Mead claimed that taboos would prohibit sexual harassment and decrease tolerance of it.

Dr. Michele Paludi is the Senior Faculty Program Director for Human Resources and Leadership in the School of Business and Technology at Excelsior College in Albany, New York. She is the author/editor of 58 college textbooks, and more than 250 scholarly articles and conference presentations on human resource management, leadership, workplace discrimination, diversity and inclusivity, sexual harassment, campus/workplace violence and the psychology of women.