Bystander Interventions Without Paternalism or Re-victimization

I am pleased to share my latest post to The SHRM Blog.

Responsible employers, among other steps, train managers on their “bystander” obligations. It is not enough to refrain from bad behavior. As a bystander with power, if you see or hear harassing behavior, you must respond to it. But how?

Let’s take a “hypothetical.” A business meeting takes place among executives.  There are four men and one woman.  During the meeting, the group realizes they are not going to meet Wall Street’s expectations. One of the men snaps “oh F…”

After he said it, the F bomber looks to the one woman at the table and says, “I’m sorry.” Another man at the table digs the hole deeper by adding:   “He did not mean to offend you.” [How did he know that?]

By focusing on the one woman at the table, both male executives not only drew attention to her (re-victimization) but also suggested that she was a fragile creature who needed to be rescued and protected from their vulgar mouths (paternalism).

In this hypothetical, the woman was not offended by the expletive when it was used in response to bad economic news.  But she certainly did not like the attention being placed on her.  Having finished reading Jane Austin, she was not going to fall off her Victorian chair because of a curse word.

In this case, if anything were to be said, it should have been: “let’s keep it professional” but without focusing on the woman.

Change the facts: what if what was said was a “joke” that demeaned women? Should not someone apologize to her now?

NO!  Again, that only makes her the focus.  In other words, it makes it worse.  Plus, it suggests, were she not there, the demeaning comment would have been okay.

The focus should be on the person who made the comment.  Looking at the person who said it, someone with power (including HR) should say: “That is offensive to me. We will talk later.”

Respond “in the moment” so that others do not assume your silence is complicity. Then, take appropriate corrective action more confidentially.

Preventing harassment is more than preventing liability; it is about preventing harm. We need to train on “in the moment:” responses to bad behavior, or we may create harm in the process of trying to correct it.

THIS BLOG SHOULD NOT BE CONSTRUED AS LEGAL ADVICE, PERTAINING TO SPECIFIC FACTUAL SITUATION OR ESTABLISHING AN ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP.

Jonathan A. Segal

About Jonathan A. Segal

Jonathan’s preventive and corrective approach to employment/HR issues includes counseling, policies, training, agreements and audits. Areas of substantive focus include, for example: gender equality, wage and hour compliance, social media and employee engagement. When Jonathan isn’t counseling employers or dedicating his time to SHRM and the HR community, he can be found volunteering his time and efforts to animal rescue. Jonathan is also mad about Mad Men, writing and speaking on the employment issues arising out of the MadMen Era! Follow Jonathan on Twitter @Jonathan_HR_Law.