3 Ways to Help Shut Down Workplace Harassment

The #MeToo movement has erupted during a time when I’m at a crossroads. I graduated from college last year, aiming to make a difference by working in nonprofits. In my post-grad internship at the UN and my current position at an educational nonprofit, I found myself entering workplaces engulfed in debate about tackling sexual misconduct. I expected seasoned professionals to have all the answers, especially in public service. But even my well-intentioned, veteran coworkers are grappling with questions.

Some who were unaware of the pervasiveness of the issue want to make things better, but don’t know what’s appropriate. Others see situations they know cross the line, but feel powerless to speak up. All this messiness sometimes feels overwhelming. Yet, I’m ready to make my voice heard. When I was in college, my friends and I worked at the campus women’s center and heard stories of misconduct that could’ve been prevented if a third party had stepped in instead of worrying about overreacting. After hearing from our peers about those experiences, we were galvanized to take action.

Our focus turned to a solutions-oriented program called Bystander Training, which is used to combat sexual assault on campuses across the country. The training’s empowering, actionable techniques can and should be used by graduates, too, at work and in social situations. It’s made me realize I don’t need to turn a blind eye in a situation where someone is acting inappropriately or making someone uncomfortable, and I don’t need to act alone.

Bystander Training teaches skills to stop misconduct by encouraging you to de-escalate sketchy situations. Maybe someone is making inappropriate comments, talking explicitly about a colleague’s looks. You put yourself in the shoes of whoever is being mistreated and speak up if you would want someone to do it for you. Saying, “I’m not comfortable talking about this at work” might sound scary, but I’ve found that if someone takes this step, most people get on board. As I was being trained and training others, knowing everyone was looking out for each other encouraged us.

Bystander Training acknowledges that social pressure often makes it awkward to take action. This was crucial for me, I pride myself on my empathy, but I’m shy and avoid confrontations. Training doesn’t expect us to be bold heroes, losing face with friends or coworkers. It offers three discrete approaches:

  • Distract suggests taking someone out of a vulnerable situation indirectly. Once at a party, I noticed an acquaintance who was drunk. A sober guy was lurking around her, trying to get her to go upstairs. I intervened gently, without jumping to conclusions, but definitively. I told her I liked her makeup and asked her to come to the bathroom to help with mine. When we returned, he was gone, and she decided to spend the night at a girlfriend’s.
  • Delegate is my favorite because groups work together. Say again that someone is being predatory at a party, but it’s an office holiday party, so it’s more sensitive. You don’t have to handle it alone. You can distract the girl in the bathroom like me, and later make a plan with friends to report the incident to H.R. This way, you immediately de-escalate the situation, but also work together to make sure the offender is held accountable.
  • Direct is for situations where you feel confident enough to call out the offender directly. It’s best when you can be blunt, so it’s my go-to less often with co-workers and more often when I’m uncomfortable with a friend’s behavior. It doesn’t have to be a big showdown. Once, when I was with a group at a bar, a friend hit on almost every girl who entered, repeatedly, despite some obvious discomfort. I didn’t lecture, but pulled him aside and asked why he was acting that way. Feeling embarrassed, he stood down.

In many cases, the offender might calm down and rethink their actions(especially if they’re upset about something) or offer a surprising response that starts a dialogue. If your message keeps falling on deaf ears, you can also remove the offender instead of the victim, offering to take them home.

With these approaches, no one is villainized, but everyone is held to greater accountability, which can have a great impact on work or social culture. They’ve also helped me to evaluate my own actions as a bystander, instead of looking the other way.

I can’t claim Bystander Training offers all the answers–some abuse happens behind closed doors. But training encourages vigilance and care. It’s a good resource to have in your toolkit, one of many ways to help prevent sexual harassment and assault. The internet is full of resources for learning more about training. At college, knowing I had strategies to protect myself and others made me feel safer as part of a community that watches out for one another. I’m prepared now, in both my social and professional life.

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Jessica Falk is a recent grad of Trinity College from New York. Her writing focuses on tackling political issues and public activism in everyday life, especially connected to her many nerdy cultural tastes. You'll probably find her chewing someone's ear about the social messages in a Marvel movie.