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Don't be a bystander: It's time to speak out against workplace harassment
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Don't be a bystander: It's time to speak out against workplace harassment


Employers can do their part by sending leaders and HR for mandatory hands-on courses on how to manage cases, and educating staff, Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP) shares.

We all know that feeling of discomfort. It could be at the office pantry or over a Zoom meeting, and someone makes a casual racist comment, or a joke filled with sexual innuendo.

We hope someone intervenes to say something, anything, to stand up to the disrespectful comment or behaviour. But we do not, because of a phenomenon called the "bystander effect".

Studies suggest that when a victim needs help, the more people there are looking on, the lower the chances of someone stepping in. This is due to a diffusion of responsibility: everyone assumes someone else in the group will act, but no one does.

It is unfortunate because bystanders play an important role when it comes to stopping workplace harassment or bullying. They often have the power to stand up to perpetrators or report such instances to management.

However, more often than not, these onlookers remain silent. As a result, the perpetrator could end up getting away with their actions, while harassment becomes normalised in the workplace.

Why don’t more bystanders intervene at the workplace?

There are several reasons for this reluctance to step in.

A key reason is the bystander might be afraid of the potential consequences of speaking up. These could include reprisal, retaliation, becoming a target themselves or losing their job. Temporary workers, in particular, could feel especially insecure about their employment.

Another factor is a lack of confidence in the management’s ability to take real action against the perpetrator, particularly when the person is a senior member or manager in the firm. Bystanders could also simply be unaware of what exactly counts as harassment, and what they should do in response.

How can organisations enlist bystanders in the fight against harassment?

Employers can do their part to encourage bystander intervention. Here are some actions they can consider taking:

  • Ensure that all employees, including new hires, understand what constitutes workplace harassment. Staff should also be made aware of the appropriate channels and processes when it comes to making a report against a perpetrator. This can be communicated to them via a workplace harassment policy.
    • The policy should make clear that the firm tolerates neither harassment nor retaliation against those who speak up.
    • It could give examples of harassment, outline possible disciplinary measures, and direct staff to avenues where they can report such behaviour with the option of anonymity.
    • There should also be processes for whistleblowing when the perpetrator is part of the management.
  • Include bystander training in the organisation’s anti-harassment training programmes.
    • This will make staff more aware of the bystander effect and give them practical tips to help them intervene safely and effectively.
    • Bosses can send supervisors, line managers and HR for mandatory hands-on courses on how to manage workplace harassment, including how to protect bystanders and victims.
    • This will help assure complainants that their reports will be taken seriously, and that the workplace harassment policy will be applied consistently.
  • Designate certain employees as "role models" who can champion the right behaviour, offer tips on bystander intervention, and encourage others to speak up.
    • They could be given additional training to better support their fellow colleagues.
  • Foster a culture of openness and accountability.
    • One way to do this is for leaders to have an "open-door" policy, solicit feedback from staff, and behave as role models who take action against bad behaviour.
    • They can also consider rewarding staff who take action against workplace harassment.
    • All this would give employees a greater sense of psychological safety and make them feel more inclined to act.

While employers have a duty of establishing an environment of safety and respect, everyone in the workplace – including bystanders – has a role to play too. Normalising the act of calling out harassment will go a long way in encouraging more people to stop being mere bystanders and stand up to those who behave badly.

To learn more about workplace harassment and how to manage and prevent harassment at work, refer to the Tripartite Advisory on Managing Workplace Harassment or visit tafep.sg.

Photo: Shutterstock

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