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Using Bystander Intervention To Prevent Boundary Violations

Written exclusively for CUNA

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently reported that sexual harassment charges are increasing. The Commission received 9,800 sexual harassment claims in the first three quarters of 2018. Chris Opfer "Sex Harassment Claims on Rise, EEOC Finds" bna.com (Sep. 12, 2018).

Employers are looking for ways to stop this increase in charges. One way is to focus on interrupting unwelcome behaviors at the outset.

Sexual harassment is illegal when unwelcomed conduct is severe or so pervasive as to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. It can also result when enduring the offensive behavior becomes a condition of continued employment. Pervasive conduct is that which is repeated over time.

Many reports of sexual harassment, particularly pervasive sexual harassment, begin as behaviors that could be characterized as  boundary violations. Boundary violations in the workplace can be verbal, such as improper conversations, or physical, such as unwelcomed touching.

A workplace participant who is offended by a boundary violation will often ignore the behavior or not report it. The trouble is that over time, if the violations continue, that person will eventually become fed up with the conduct. If repeated often, the unwelcome behavior could constitute pervasive sexual harassment.

Take, as an example, a supervisor, Mark, who has a habit of hugging his employees when he congratulates them on doing a good job. Sara is okay with an occasional hug as an occasional greeting, but not a hug as a form of acknowledgment. She doesn't speak about it to Mark, but she stews about it and comments to her coworkers about how uncomfortable it makes her feel. After several months of enduring the hugs, she finally reports Mark to human resources. Now there is a potential pervasive sexual harassment claim.

What could have been done to prevent this claim from developing?

Sara could have said to Mark: "Mark, you do not have to hug me every time you want to congratulate me. I would prefer your verbal acknowledgement of my work. I like it that you recognize my hard work. I really appreciate that type of leadership."  

That provides an opportunity for Mark to thank Sara for letting him know and confirm her boundaries.

Or, if Sara did not want to talk to Mark, then she should talk with human resources to discuss how she likes that Mark recognizes good work, but that she is uncomfortable with the hugs.

That provides human resources the opportunity to open a dialogue with Mark that is constructive before the situation escalates into litigation.   

Or, what if a coworker had talked to Sara: "Sara, you seemed uncomfortable when Mark hugged you. Would you like me to go with you to human resources?"

Those who witness sexual harassment become part of the situation they are viewing. When witnesses say nothing, they are experiencing a normal reaction called the "bystander effect." This is when people ignore a stressful situation and fail to help. Why do people hesitate to intervene when intervention could stop a behavior in its early stages? People hesitate because they assume that someone else is already helping; (2) they do not know how to help; (3) they believe it isn't their place to step in; or (4) they are unsure whether any help is needed at all.

By adding bystander training to your sexual harassment training, you can encourage workplace participants to take action when they see any behavior that looks inappropriate. This is called "bystander intervention".

Bystander intervention works because active bystanders can reduce incidents of sexual harassment and help hold the wrongdoer accountable for his or her actions by challenging the inappropriate behavior before it escalates.

Depending on the circumstances, it can be unclear whether immediate intervention is the right choice, and if so, by what method. Bystanders should not, and are not obligated to, intervene in a manner that would be physically dangerous to them or to anyone else. In Sara's case, power dynamics may make the situation more difficult for a coworker to address on her behalf; but a coworker can always approach human resources. On the other hand, a bystander peer who witnesses the verbal disrespecting of a coworker by a peer may intervene and make a difference more readily.

There are several ways for bystanders to take action safely without risk to themselves:

1. Let the person engaging in the offending conduct know that you don't agree with his or her behavior. This can have a significant impact. Showing disapproval of comments or actions can be good way to intervene. For example, a bystander could say: "I don't understand what you mean by that." Asking the person to repeat or explain his or her comments or behaviors can cause that person to reconsider the comments or behaviors.

2. Bystanders can also interrupt or become a distraction in order to end a harassing situation. This can give the victim an immediate way out of the situation. Simply walk up and ask the victim, "Hey, I'm going to grab some coffee. Would you like to join me?"

After the intervention, the bystander should follow up with the victim, ask if he or she is okay, and go with the victim to notify human resources. The validation for the victim that shows the behavior was inappropriate can be immensely supportive for a victim.

By encouraging employees and management to speak up about boundary violations, communication in the workplace becomes more honest and effective for reducing claims.

If someone tells you that you have crossed a line with them: listen carefully; don't take it personally, like an attack; and thank the person for sharing. Commit to not overstepping the boundary that was pointed out to you.


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