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Anita Hill: To prevent sexual harassment at work, leaders should empower bystanders to help

April 29, 2022, 9:30 AM UTC
Anita Hill on 'The Late Show with Stephen Colbert' in September 2021. "Workers need and want to be engaged in eliminating harassment where they work," write Hill and Yasmin Dunn.
(Photo by Scott Kowalchyk/CBS via Getty Images)

This essay is the second in a series of Fortune op-eds by Anita Hill marking the fifth anniversary of the #MeToo movement. Read the first installment here.

In the campaign to eliminate sexual harassment at work, bystander training is not a nice-to-have: It is a must-have. Training that provides employees with clear and effective strategies for intervention when they witness workplace violations reduces harassment. Empowering workers to properly challenge abusive behavior can inspire cultures of accountability and safety. 

Not all anti-harassment training is created equal or received equally, however. Research shows that when leaders participate in and champion bystander intervention, better results follow. Here’s why. 

While traditional harassment-prevention training is limited in its effectiveness, bystander intervention has the potential to create positive workplace norms that create deep cultural change. In a pair of decisions in 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that employers could protect themselves from potential harassment lawsuits by instituting training and grievance procedures. But Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev note in their 2020 study and subsequent article in Harvard Business Review, “The programs and procedures that the Supreme Court favored in 1998 amount to little more than managerial snake oil. They are doing more harm than good.” In fact, as noted in their study, “40% of women say they’ve been harassed at work—a number that hasn’t changed since the 1980s.”

Workers need and want to be engaged in eliminating harassment where they work. The Hollywood Commission’s Hollywood Survey 2019-2020 asked nearly 10,000 entertainment workers if they felt bystander training would be a valuable resource. Over 90% of people surveyed felt that it would be. As we had heard prior to the survey, people were aware that certain unwanted behaviors occurred but were at a loss when they witnessed unwanted behavior. In fact, the survey revealed that 62% of the respondents who had been subjected to unwanted behavior said that bystanders had been present when the behavior occurred.

Consistent with this research, the 2016 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace encouraged organizations to adopt bystander intervention training, because of its potential to eliminate sexual harassment. New York mandates that bystander training be a part of current harassment-prevention training. Recently passed California legislation encourages employers to provide bystander training to help create a cohesive workplace where workers look out for one another.

Despite more awareness of bystander training, workers have revealed how lost they feel when it comes to being proactive. One Hollywood Commission survey respondent noted, “I don’t know that training for people who do inappropriate things is useful. I don’t think they want to change. BUT help for bystanders is particularly helpful. What do we do? How do we help? What to do? Without feeling like we’re being dramatic.” 

Traditional prevention training often alienates participants, as it focuses on the punitive. Effective bystander-intervention training does the opposite by focusing on worker empowerment. Empowering bystander training gives workers tools and allows them to be active participants in solutions that check abuses. Intervention at the level of microaggressions can help prevent more egregious harassment behaviors from occurring in the workplace, and bystander training teaches workers how to identify microaggressions and what to do about them.

CEOs and other C-suite leaders are in a pivotal position as influencers in their culture. When leadership participates in the training, they demonstrate and model their commitment to a safe and bias-free environment. When leaders and those with positional power in an organization validate the experiences of others and intervene in a public way, it sets the tone for behavior expectations. If the boss doesn’t allow microaggressions, offensive jokes or slights, others will call that behavior out as well. 

Often the best way to intervene is to validate the experience of the victim of unwanted behavior. In the entertainment community, only one in four workers who experienced gender harassment, sexual coercion, or unwanted sexual attention reported the behavior to a supervisor or Human Resources. For worker response rates to improve, management must restore workers’ confidence in organizational processes. Engaged leadership can assure victims and bystanders that they will not face retaliation for voicing concerns; it can also reinforce how the small act of validating someone’s experience can have a profound effect on the culture.

Employers may find the prospect of adding bystander intervention to their current compliance training programs difficult to manage. But the prospect for cultural change makes it worthwhile to revamp current compliance training to include a bystander component. For today’s leaders who acknowledge that ending sexual harassment must be a priority, bystander training is an invaluable tool—one that shows promise to transform workplaces.

Anita Hill is chair of the Hollywood Commission, an organization that works to stop discrimination, harassment, and abuse in the entertainment industry. She is a professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis University and the author of Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence

Yasmin Dunn is director of education and outreach at The Hollywood Commission.

The opinions expressed in Commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors, and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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