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Bystander intervention and sexual harassment

Are you concerned about sexual harassment in your workplace? Do you feel somewhat powerless, however, to do anything about it?

Well, you aren’t. In fact, if you aren’t the person being victimized by sexual harassment, you may hold the key to halting that kind of behavior in its tracks — especially if you act in concert with others. It’s called “bystander intervention.”

Here’s the basic problem: Despite all of the lectures from management on inappropriate office behavior, the training sessions and the “open door” policies in human resources to encourage victims to step forward, sexual harassment in the workplace continues to be a problem. That’s largely because it isn’t about sex. It’s about power and control.

The victims of sexual harassment usually feel like they have been stripped of their personal power and have been made to feel incredibly vulnerable. That makes them reluctant (or unable) to stand up for themselves much of the time. In particular, when they look around the office and co-workers uncomfortably join in on the abuser’s “joke,” laugh or simply turn a blind eye to the abuser’s behavior, the victims may convince themselves that they are overreacting or should just play along.

As a bystander, you can shift the balance of power dramatically simply by speaking up and saying, in essence, “This isn’t okay.” Rather than delivering a quiet message to the new intern to stay away from the office lech (which delivers the message that the lech is to be tolerated), you stop the lech in action and say, “I’m sorry, but that’s not the appropriate behavior here at work.”

Ultimately, bystander intervention is what changes a company’s culture to make sexual harassment unacceptable — and takes the balance of power away from the abusers.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is everyone’s problem — and everyone suffers from its effects. If you’ve been victimized and it has affected your career or health, find out more about your legal options.

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