Skip to main content

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 extent.

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.

A 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 interest.

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 others.[57]

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 women.[59]

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. 288-306.

[44] B Gutek, Sex and the workplace (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 behaviour: an actor based perspective’ (2000) 25 Academy of Management Review, pp. 372-388.

[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 Services (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 bibliography, (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 Psychology, 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 Behaviour & 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 Psychology, 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 Behaviour, pp. 31-49.