Encourage. Support. Act!
Bystander Approaches to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
- Back to Contents
- Executive summary
- Part 1: Sexual harassment: an overview
- Part 2: Sexual harassment from the perspective of bystanders
- Part 3: The motivations and actions of bystanders: theoretical perspectives on bystander intervention
- Part 4: Bystander interventions in violence prevention
- Part 5: Legal and organisational implications of bystander approaches for sexual harassment
- Part 6: Towards a prevention framework
I am pleased to present Encourage. Support. Act!: Bystander Approaches to
Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, a research paper authored by Paula
McDonald (Queensland University of Technology) and Michael Flood (University of
Sexual harassment is conduct of a sexual nature that a reasonable person
would anticipate could make the person harassed feel offended, humiliated or
intimidated. It is a form of sex discrimination and usually a manifestation of
Sexual harassment is widespread in Australia. 22 percent of women aged 18-64,
and 5 percent of men aged 18-64 years experience sexual harassment in the workplace. It is not surprising, therefore,
that almost one-third of all complaints received by the Australian Human Rights
Commission in 2010-11 under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 related to
Particularly concerning is the fact that those who experience sexual
harassment rarely report it. The ‘hidden’ nature of sexual
harassment makes it especially difficult to bring the problem to the surface.
Creative and innovative approaches are required.
One such approach is to enlist the help of bystanders; that is individuals
who witness or are informed of sexual harassment. Bystanders can be highly
effective in raising awareness of sexual harassment. They can also intervene to
prevent harm and contribute to improving workplace practices and cultures that
reduce the occurrence of sexual harassment.
In 2008, the Commission conducted a Sexual Harassment National Telephone
Survey. The Survey found that 12% of respondents had witnessed sexual
harassment, the large majority of whom went on to take some form of action.
Witnesses – or bystanders - most commonly listened or offered advice to
targets of sexual harassment, but many also confronted harassers or made formal
complaints. Tellingly, bystanders were twice as likely to take action, than were
targets of sexual harassment.
For those who experience and witness it, sexual
harassment can have significant negative health and other consequences. It is
also costly to organisations. Employee turnover, reduced morale, absenteeism,
the threat of legal action, injury to reputation and loss of shareholder
confidence are just some of the possible consequences. These flow-on effects for
business productivity indicate we cannot afford to ignore bystander
In May 2011, the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 was
amended to expand protections against sexual harassment. This was a step in the
right direction for strengthening protections.
However, in order for bystanders to feel supported in highlighting sexual
harassment in the workplace, there must be a substantial shift in organisational
culture. Organisational environments must support the reporting of sexual
harassment. This will encourage bystanders to take action. This paper outlines
some of the key factors that discourage bystanders from taking action. These
factors include a lack of knowledge of workplace rights, low expectations of
reporting mechanisms and a fear of the potential negative impacts of reporting
Drawing from other research in areas such as whistle blowing,
racial harassment and workplace bullying, this paper recommends a number of
strategies to encourage bystander intervention. Development of training
programs, grievance procedures, multiple complaints channels and incentives for
bystanders to make valid reports of sexual harassment are some of the
suggestions. Assuring bystanders of anonymity and immunity from legal action and
victimisation are others. I believe that actions such as these have real
potential to increase reporting and reduce the incidence of sexual harassment in
If we don’t support and encourage the targets of sexual
harassment and any bystanders to take action, we run the risk of creating
cultures of tolerance. It is up to organisations to provide this support and
encouragement, thereby making it clear that sexual harassment has no place in
our workplaces or in our society.
It is my hope that this paper will become a critical resource that provides the basis for understanding the role of bystanders and implementing effective strategies to support and encourage action against sexual harassment in Australian workplaces.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner