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Encourage. Support. Act! - Introduction

Encourage. Support. Act!

Bystander Approaches to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace


Workplace sexual harassment is a persistent and pervasive problem in
Australia and elsewhere, demanding new and creative responses. One promising
area which may inform prevention and response strategies is bystander
approaches. In broad terms, bystander approaches focus on the ways in which
individuals who are not the targets of the conduct can intervene in violence,
harassment or other anti-social behaviour in order to prevent and reduce harm to
others.[40] Although bystander
approaches have a long history in relation to intervening in emergencies, they
have recently been translated to efforts to engage men and boys in the
prevention of sexual violence. Indeed, such strategies are now a common element
in contemporary violence prevention education, such as on American university
campuses and there is a growing body of scholarship evaluating their
effectiveness. Recently, bystander approaches have also been incorporated into
initiatives by the Commission to empower young people to take safe steps to
respond to cyberbullying[41] and by
the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation to prevent and respond to race
discrimination[42]. Bystander
approaches may be useful in extending efforts to eradicate workplace sexual
harassment and in the process, to raise awareness of the problem and change a
culture of tolerance towards sexual harassment in organisational settings.

A focus on bystander interventions in workplace sexual harassment is
important because targets of sexual harassment, despite significant negative
consequences, often respond passively to the conduct – for example, by
avoiding the harasser, minimising the behaviours or denying it
altogether.[43] This may be because
although targets want the behaviour to end, they must balance this objective
with avoiding reprisals by the harasser and maintaining their status and
reputation in the work
environment.[44] Therefore,
organisational approaches which rely exclusively on individual complaints made
by targets of harassment are unlikely to be
successful.[45] On the other hand,
enlisting the support of bystanders to intervene during or following an actual
event, or to report the behaviour through organisational channels, may be an
effective way to extend efforts to eliminate sexual harassment at work.

Research on bystander approaches to sexual harassment has generated a
significant number of studies addressing how bystanders perceive sexual
harassment. A small body of recent work has also begun to address the potential
for bystander interventions in workplace bullying. However, relative to the
extensive literature which addresses the prevalence of
workplace[46] sexual harassment, the
types of conduct that characterise the problem and patterns of reporting, the
way in which bystander approaches may be utilised in the workplace to actively
prevent or respond to sexual harassment is formative. While general theoretical
models are beginning to emerge, these have yet to be tested to any significant
At least two major factors shape this under-examination. First,
harassers themselves work to hide their sexually harassing behaviour, using
tactics including cover-up, where perpetrators act away from witnesses
and hide their actions.[47] Further
contributing to the concealment of sexual harassment is that relatively few
targets report their experiences using formal organisational grievance
procedures and even fewer do so outside the confines of the workplace or to a
public hearing.[48] For example, the
2008 AHRC prevalence study on sexual harassment revealed that fewer than one in
six respondents who reported sexual harassment had formally reported the
incident(s), predominantly because of fear of reprisals and/or an expectation
that the response would be
inadequate.[49] Even when legal
redress is sought, it is rare for direct eyewitness testimony to be
available.[50] Furthermore,
organisations rarely publicise cases, fearing bad publicity more than they
anticipate the benefits of deterring potential harassers. Research also suggests
that the hidden nature of sexual harassment can be especially problematic in
some work environments and circumstances, such as during deployment in Defence
operations where the focus on the mission overshadows other
concerns,[51] or during interactions
off-site with clients or customers where harassers may perceive less
accountability.[52] The hidden
nature of sexual harassment means that it may also be methodologically difficult
to locate bystanders in the workplace to participate in research.

second major reason for the dearth of research on bystander interventions in
sexual harassment is that research on the subject has evolved as largely
separate or isolated from work on other potentially relevant topics, such as
whistle blowing, employee voice and violence prevention and in which bystander
intervention efforts have featured more centrally. Put another way, studies of
sexual harassment tend to theorise and approach the problem as a distinct
phenomenon, without adequately considering how it may share features with, or
occur along a spectrum of, other workplace phenomena. Encouragingly however, a
recent working paper published by the International Labour Office refers to
sexual harassment as one manifestation of gender-based workplace violence, which
also includes bullying, mobbing, economic exploitation and harassment based on
sex.[53] Supporting this framing of
sexual harassment as one component of a broader continuum of gender inequality
are studies which reveal a significant co-occurrence of sexually harassing
behaviours and other negative gender-based workplace
conduct.[54] Also reflecting the
problem of the isolation of specific fields of interest is that violence
prevention efforts, which include bystander intervention strategies, have
focused largely on domestic and dating violence rather than sexual harassment or
other damaging conduct which occurs in the workplace. Bystander intervention as
a specific focus of violence prevention is also a relatively new field of

In examining broader notions of bystander approaches and how they may be
relevant to sexual harassment, it is important to define what is meant by a
‘bystander’. Work addressing bystander-related strategies for the
prevention and reduction of violence addresses both ‘passive’
bystanders – those who in simple terms do nothing – and
‘active’ bystanders – those who act in some way to prevent or
reduce sexual harassment. However, existing conceptualisations of both passive
and active bystanders have usually been, either explicitly or implicitly,
confined to those who directly observe violence. In contrast, this paper adopts
a more inclusive definition of ‘bystanders’. This definition
encompasses those individuals who observe sexual harassment firsthand, but also
other organisational actors who do not necessarily directly witness events, but
are informed of the conduct via another means. There are two rationales for this
more inclusive conceptualisation of bystander.

First, although sexual harassment is often hidden from direct witnesses,
there is strong evidence that it has a significant negative psychological impact
on observers as well as co-workers who are not direct
witnesses.[55] Studies have shown
for example that working in an environment that is misogynistic, hostile to
women and lax about harassment, leads to similar detrimental effects to those
that impact direct targets.[56] The
second reason for including those who hear about, as well those who directly
observe, sexual harassment in a definition of ‘bystander’ is
research which suggests that it is difficult to disentangle direct observation
from second-hand knowledge because individuals often fail to distinguish their
personal observations from the suggestions of

Bystanders, as we define them here, may include co-workers who are informed
of sexual harassment via the workplace grapevine, or via targets themselves who
seek emotional support and advice. This broader conceptualisation of bystanders
also includes managers or supervisors, human resource employees, workplace
ombudsmen and /or equity/harassment contact officers in organisations to whom
sexual harassment is reported, either formally, such as where policies and
grievance procedures are implemented, or
informally[58], where targets
confine reporting to support-seeking or requests for advice.

An examination of the distinctions and overlap between categories of
bystander complicates existing work in the field. However, addressing these
complexities is important in examining potential frameworks for bystander
interventions in workplace sexual harassment due to the tightly interwoven
relationships and legal responsibilities between organisations and employees.
Particularly relevant are vicarious liability provisions in the federal Sex
Discrimination Act and state legislation which guide the development and
implementation of organisational policies, training and grievance procedures.
Thus, the consideration of the role of a wide range of organisational actors as
‘bystanders’ is important in discussions of how effective prevention
and response strategies in sexual harassment can be implemented.
This paper
aims to build understandings of bystander sexual harassment by bridging what is
currently a conceptual divide between a number of areas of research which are,
or may be, relevant to understanding how bystander approaches can be used as
effective responses to workplace sexual harassment. Importantly, the paper
considers sexual harassment as both a specific and legally defined form of sex
discrimination and as a manifestation of gender-based workplace violence and a
broader ‘cultural misogyny’ or hostility towards

The paper draws on diverse perspectives including existing empirical work on
sexual harassment, relevant legal cases, conceptual frameworks explaining
bystander behaviours and interventions and work addressing organisational
processes and injustices in a range of areas to address what is clearly a
promising field of enquiry. In particular, it informs potentially innovative
solutions to a costly problem which remains a persistent barrier to
organizational effectiveness and national economic priorities and which
significantly and negatively affects the safety and well-being of large numbers
of individual workers.

[40] A Powell, Review of
bystander approaches in support of preventing violence against women
Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (2011), p. 8-10.

[41] Australian Human Rights
Commission, Cyberbullying, Human rights and bystanders (2010). At

[42] VicHealth, Review of
bystander approaches in support of preventing race-based discrimination,
Victorian Health Promotion Foundation (2010).

[43] L Bowes-Sperry L and A
O’Leary-Kelly, ‘To act or not to act: the dilemma faced by sexual
harassment observers’ (2005) 30 Academy of Management Review, pp.

[44] B Gutek, Sex and the
(1985); B Ragins and T Scandura, ‘Antecedents and
work–related correlates of reported sexual harassment: an empirical
investigation of competing hypotheses’ (1995) 32(7/8) Sex Roles, pp. 429–455; A O’Leary-Kelly, R Paetzold and R Griffin,
‘Sexual harassment as aggressive behavior: an actor based
perspective’ (2000) 25 Academy of Management Review, pp.

[45] C Benavides-Espinoza and G
Cunningham, ‘Bystanders’ reactions to sexual harassment’
(2010) 63 Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, pp. 201-213.

[46] This paper focuses on sexual
harassment in the context of the workplace but takes as given that harassment is
also prevalent in other contexts.

[47] G Scott and B Martin,
‘Tactics against sexual harassment: the role of backfire’ (2006)
7(4) Journal of International Women’s Studies, pp. 111-125.

[48] J Firestone and R Harris,
‘Perceptions of effectiveness of responses to sexual harassment in the US
military, 1988 and 1995’ (2003) 10(1) Gender, Work & Organization, pp. 42–64; R Illies, N Hauserman, S Schwochau and J Stibal,
‘Reported incidence rates of work-related sexual harassment in the United
States: using meta-analysis to explain reported rate disparities’ (2003)
56(3) Personnel Psychology, pp. 607-618; D Wear, J Aultman and N Borgers,
‘Retheorising sexual harassment in medical education: women
students’ perceptions at five US medical schools’ (2007) 19(1) Teaching and Learning in Medicine, pp. 20–29.

[49] Australian Human Rights
Commission (2008). Sexual Harassment: Serious Business. Results of the 2008
Sexual Harassment National Telephone Survey

[50] P McDonald, T Graham and B
Martin, ‘Outrage management in cases of sexual harassment as revealed in
judicial decisions’ (2010) 34(2) Psychology of Women Quarterly, pp.165-180.

[51] United States Department of
Defense, Report of the Defense Task Force on Sexual Assault in the Military
(2009), Alexandra, VA: Defense Task Force. Available at (viewed 7 June 2012)

[52] H Gettman and M Gelfand,
‘When the customer shouldn’t be kind: antecedents and consequences
of sexual harassment by clients and customers’ (2007) 92(3) Journal of
Applied Psychology
, pp. 757-770.

[53] A Cruz and S Klinger, Gender-based violence in the world of work: overview and selected annotated
, (Working Paper 3/2011). At (Viewed 10 August 2011).

[54] S Lim and L Cortina,
‘Interpersonal mistreatment in the workplace: the interface and impact of
general incivility and sexual harassment’ (2005) 90 Journal of Applied
, pp. 483-496.

[55] K Miner-Rubino and L
Cortina, ‘Beyond targets: consequences of vicarious exposure to misogyny
at work’ (2007) 92(5) Journal of Applied Psychology, pp.1254-1269;
J Raver and M Gelfand ‘Beyond the individual victim: linking sexual
harassment, team processes and team performance’ (2005) 48 Academy of
Management Journal
, pp. 387-400.

[56] T Glomb, W Tichman, C Hulin,
F Drasgow, K Schneider and L Fitzgerald, ‘Ambient sexual harassment: an
integrated model of antecedents and consequences (1997) 71 Organizational
Behavior & Human Decision Processes,
pp. 309-328; K Miner-Rubino and L
Cortina, ‘Working in a context of hostility toward women: implications for
employees’ well-being’ (2004) 9 Journal of Occupational Health
, pp. 107-122; K Miner-Rubino and L Cortina, ‘Beyond
targets: consequences of vicarious exposure to misogyny at work’ (2007)
92(5) Journal of Applied Psychology, pp.1254-1269.

[57] S Hekkanen and C McEvoy,
‘False memories and source-monitoring problems: criterion
differences’ (2002) 16 Applied Cognitive Psychology, pp. 73-85.

[58] The distinction between
formal and informal reporting throws up legal and ethical concerns which are
addressed in Part 4 of the paper.

[59] J Gailey and A Prohaska,
‘Knocking off a fat girl: an explanation of hogging, male sexuality and
neutralization’ (2006) 27 Deviant Behavior, pp. 31-49.