The larger your organization is, the more challenging it is for supervisors, managers, HR professionals, and leaders to stay on top of the wide range of interactions taking place between employees. Even leaders in small organizations can’t be observing employee interactions all the time. Most interactions are positive and collaborative. But when interactions stray into areas of potential harassment, it’s important to be aware of what’s going on.

That’s where your employees can come into play. When employees understand the potential role they can serve as active bystanders and are armed with resources to help them effectively in this role, everyone benefits. 

Strengthening Employees’ Role as Active Bystanders

Most people want to intervene in situations where they observe inappropriate behavior, but many don’t. Why? Because they’re not quite sure what their role is, what they should do or whether they’re completely comfortable putting themselves in the middle of what can be awkward—even potentially dangerous—situations.  

Teaching employees how to speak up and intervene effectively can help to support a climate and culture of respect. There are three important steps that organizations can take to educate employees about their role as active bystanders and to make it safe and comfortable for them to do so:

  1. Awareness
  2. Attitudes
  3. Action

In this and two follow-up posts we’ll be exploring each of these steps and offering advice and practical tips for creating a cadre of active bystanders.

Awareness: The First Step Toward Positive Change

While it may seem that employees should be able to naturally identify situations of bias, discrimination or harassment, this isn’t necessarily the case. It’s important, therefore, for employers to explicitly educate employees both on what types of behaviors they should be alert to and why they should take action when they observe these behaviors. 

Don’t Assume Employees “Know” What’s Expected

With five generations in the workplace and an increasingly diverse workforce made up of not only different generations but different races, nationalities, cultures, etc., employers shouldn’t just “assume” that employees will automatically recognize the presence of inappropriate perceptions, viewpoints or actions in the workplace. They need to be explicit, and specific, about what inappropriate behavior looks like.

This can be accomplished through policies and procedures, where examples can be given. In addition to documented policies and procedures, though, employers have an opportunity—and an obligation—to provide training to help employees how to identify incidents of harassment in the workplace

Taking a Positive Approach

One of the best practices we have uncovered here is the importance of taking a positive, rather than a blaming, approach to training—a focus more on what a positive and supportive culture looks like, rather than an emphasis on bad behaviors can provide a better climate for understanding and interaction.

Rather than label employees who exhibit undesirable behaviors as perpetrators or offenders, it’s a better idea to think of them as “imperfect allies”—people who, given the right information and understanding, would be unlikely to create a hostile environment for others.

Other Best Practices

A focus on awareness isn’t something that should take place upon an employee’s hire or during once-a-year mandated training, although these are obvious times that awareness can be raised. Instead, communication should be constant and ongoing to ensure that employees—and supervisors and managers—understand what the company expectations are and what types of behaviors are inappropriate.

In our next post, we’ll talk about the 2nd A: Attitudes.

The Power of Bystander Intervention

Provide your workforce with the strategies to 'break the silence' and foster a culture of active intervention.