A Culture of Silence


Many workplace harassment incidents do not only involve the harasser and the victim. Rather, many members of the office or corporation may be aware that inappropriate conduct or behavior is occurring, yet never report a problem. A culture of silence that condones workplace harassment harms the ability to create a healthy workplace environment and can even promote a hostile workspace. Tolerance of harassing behaviors, comments, and gestures not only produces a toxic company culture, but it also signals to perpetrators that their actions are acceptable.


What can we do to?


Expand training and awareness-raising to bystanders to support the prevention of violence and harassment at work.


As a bystander, spotting red flags and speaking up immediately, can make the hammer of justice swing much faster. Break the chain of inaction by understanding – and preventing – the bystander effect. A culture of silence is much less likely to end workplace harassment than one of empowerment, intervention, and empathy. If no one speaks up against harassment, the perpetrator may never face consequences for his or her actions. Moreover, some perpetrators may not even realize others are perceiving their actions as harassment. Saying something starts a conversation, shows that employees will not stand for harassing behaviors, and “ends the normalization of harassment in the workplace.”


Training bystanders to recognize, intervene, and empathize with the harassed party not only raises awareness of issues, but also promotes the disruption of lower level form of harassment before they potentially escalate into more grave forms of workplace misconduct. Experts are exploring sexual harassment prevention in companies by incorporating bystander intervention approaches. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), in 2016 encouraged all employers to offer bystander training. New York City even passed a law requiring all companies with more than 15 employees to begin providing sexual harassment training that includes bystander training since April of 2019.



What is Bystander Intervention?


At the most fundamental level, bystander interventions begin long before an incident of harassment. Proper bystander interventions start with workers having informal conversations in unstressed settings about how to treat each other respectfully, how they can help each other excel or make their days better, and practice giving positive feedback. Normalizing talking about behavior and defining respectful behaviors make it easier for coworkers to see and give negative feedback if a worker later crosses a line. So, if a colleague tells an offensive joke, it’s easier to say, ‘Remember how we talked, and we all agreed about what’s OK to say at work? That’s not it.’”


Bystander intervention has been viewed as one of the most effective forms of curtailing sexual harassment across organizations, universities, and the greater population. As mentioned in our article on the efficacy of sexual harassment training, the introduction of an additional party in the victim and perpetrator narrative allows for the restructuring on what harassment looks like in the workplace – and beyond. By promoting a cultural of bystander intervention and empathy, the victim can feel supported and heard, which are imperative after a traumatic incident.


This is particularly important because research has shown that workplace sexual harassment incidents are regularly witnessed by colleagues and, in many cases, they are reluctant to intervene. By promoting “active” bystanders to recognize violence and harassment, and to understand when it is appropriate to intervene, it opens the door for others to feel empowered in a situation wherein they may be hesitant to speak up about something they had witnessed.



The Five D’s


The Five D’s provide bystanders with a range of options to respond to witnessing harassment in the workplace, or anywhere else.

  • Direct: Confront the harasser and call out the behavior in the moment. Let them know you find their behavior inappropriate, intimidating, or hostile, and ask them to stop. This approach may escalate the situation, so consider whether you and the person being harassed are safe and whether you believe the person being harassed wants someone to speak up.


  • Distract: One can stop an incident by simply interrupting it. Rather than focusing on the aggressor or action, this subtle form of intervention allows you to engage the person being targeted through a distraction – ask a question, start an unrelated conversation, physically interrupt the incident, or find a reason to call the person out of that space.


  • Delegate: Find an appropriate third party to intervene, such as a supervisor, human resources officer, security officer or another colleague.


  • Delay: If you aren’t able or choose not to intervene in the moment, you can still support the person who has been harassed by following up with them afterwards. You can offer acknowledgement and empathy, and can ask whether they need additional support, resources, or documentation of the incident. You can also confront the harasser later and let them know that you found their behavior inappropriate.


  • Document: Depending on the circumstances and whether other interventions are more urgent, it may be most helpful to document what you are witnessing. If you are able to record an incident or jot down details, be sure to follow up with the targeted individual and ask them what they would like done with the documentation; do not share it without their consent.


Incorporating the Five D’s into trainings and into the minds of all potential bystanders gives those who witness scenes of harassment the requisite skills to deescalate troubling situations. Yet, there are still many obstacles to overcome in altering a hostile work environment. Culture change is simple, but hard. Although training sessions and harassment education do provide those with the tools and information to act, there are often complex dynamics that make these situations even more difficult to navigate, and perhaps reason for why bystanders have remained silent in the past.



What challenges do bystanders face?



Power Dynamics:


One main concern for bystanders concentrates on office power structures and how they affect how bystanders – or involved parties – react to situations of workplace harassment. “Too often people let things slide, concerned that if they get involved, it might affect their own career aspirations,” as pointed out by supervising attorney for the New York City Commission on Human Rights. Because careers and reputations can be on the line, considering a matrix of questions before acting: “Can I have an impact? Is it safe? What is the best strategy given the culture of the organization and my level of influence?”


Additionally, those in positions of power may abuse subordinates in forms of “Quid pro quo” (or “this for that”). This may involve an executive pressuring or coercing a subordinate to engage in sexual acts in return for continued employment, a promotion, favorable hours or shifts, time off or a positive review. The other occurs when conduct is intentional, recurring, severe and/or pervasive and impacts one’s ability to perform their job. This is called a “hostile work environment.” Staying silent on issues that involve complex characters create situations that cause hesitation on part of bystanders. But by dismantling the acceptance of this type of behavior across the company, all employees and employers will feel comfortable intervening in a culture of transparency.



Avoiding vs. Confronting:


Another common practice that has become a stain on the move toward progress in workplace harassment revolves around avoidance of the problem. By avoidance, this is not a direct disregard of the problem. Rather, instead of addressing the harasser or perpetrator head-on, we advise others to steer clear of them in private settings or tune out some of their behaviors. For example, maybe you warn a new employee to stay away from a certain individual. If people are cognizant, yet no one is comfortable addressing the culprit, the only message this person receives is, “my behavior is okay.” Colleagues aren’t telling him, ‘I don’t think you should do that.’ Instead, they’re telling the new intern, ‘Don’t go into the copy room with him.’ It’s all about risk aversion instead of risk mitigation.



Bystander Bias:


If I am a bystander watching a questionable situation unfold, but I have a close friendship with the perpetrator, I may attribute their behavior to something else, or not report the incident because I do not want to strain my relationship with them. This is a clear case of bystander bias. If you or another person has a separate – often more personal reason – for not reporting an issue, it threatens the integrity of the system by only accounting for incidents of select people, rather than all incidents of harassment. Conversely, if you have a sour relationship with a co-worker, it will likely decrease the chances of your reporting of the incident that happens to them. By acting subjectively, based on personal relationships with either entity in a case of harassment, it obscures the importance of total objective intolerance for workplace harassment.



Fear of Retaliation


                Lastly, one of the most common and pervasive issues among bystanders for avoiding intervention is a fear of retaliation. With cases of harassment being extremely sensitive, bystanders can vacillate on whether their involvement will only create more drama and expose themselves to risk or just keep silent. Furthermore, in cases involving superiors or executive level members, one might fear that they will retaliate by holding their career hostage if they bring forth a claim. These examples are a small microcosm of how bystanders are left in a moral conundrum – whether saying anything to protect themselves is wrong or put themselves in jeopardy of being retaliated against. Thankfully, there are laws in place that protect employees who engage in a legally protected activity. All of the federal anti-discrimination laws enforced by the EEOC prohibit retaliation, as does the False Claims Act.



Silence is the most dangerous form of bystander inactivity. Leveraging the people in the office environment to set the tone for what is acceptable and what’s not acceptable behavior creates a sense of community and intolerance for sexual harassment – and all other types of harassment. The knowledge of what harassment may look like, without any action or active agents for change the same toxic culture will continue to define the office. When it comes to workplace culture, everyone is responsible for creating it, each day, in every situation. Don’t Actively Standby. Be an Active Bystander.





By Noah Gassman

November 19, 2020