An Antidote to Workplace Harassment During COVID-19

Warren Postlewaite, 360 Workplace Solutions Ltd. Previously published on Lexology.                                                        

Punching the clock during COVID-19 has been like drinking from a firehose – you’re likely getting much more than you can handle.

Notwithstanding, everyday you’re still trying to leave your organization better than you found it. You’re tirelessly going above and beyond. Then, like a thunderclap, you’re harassed. There are bystanders, but they stay silent. 

Outranked in privilege, power and capacity to fight back, you don’t tell the harasser to “stop.” It goes unreported. 

This is reality for 60% of employees in Canada who are working during the pandemic.

Over the past five years harassment has had a meteoric rise in prevalence rates with 60% of Canadian workers experiencing an harassing event. The research tells us over 90% of incidents have a bystander watching but they remained silent.Further, only 39% of targets are able to object to a harasser and most are unsuccessful in objecting because harassers hate being on a level playing field. This all reinforces thatit’s largely, by default, up to bystanders to intervene, triage and report harassing behaviors.  

At the best of times we know harassment is grossly underreported. Fast-forward to the current COVID state and it’s becoming clear to human resource departments that the pandemic is blowing the door shut, further reducing the number of harassment filings.

The topic of harassment reporting during COVID is especially salient to distressed government agencies and essential service businesses. These embattled workplaces are currently undergoing herculean change and this adds tension to systems and fuel for harassing behaviors. That less complaints are being filed during this pandemic is problematic. Harassment, microaggressions and other forms of abuse are now, more than ever, hiding out in the open. 

Things might look okay on the surface but these are not benign circumstances. During times of unrest a respectful workplace is needed to fertilize peak team performance. Respectful spaces promote positive relationships and therefore enhance collaboration, agility and innovation in times of profound change.

The current scarcity of harassment filings, however, is an opportunity for a long overdue bystander awakening where co-dependence on each other’s courage and good will is more essential than ever.

Doing nothing to support a target of harassment is not a neutral act. For harassment to thrive it requires bystander silence. The research tells us “harassers harass because they can.” 

No organization can mitigate bystander silence alone, it will take a strong internal responsibility system. It will need all leaders and staff to create positive change. Where everyone understands that silence is an action – that slience is participation. 

Bystander intervention is about flattening the hierarchy where everyone can intervene and is encouraged to lead without a title. A human hive that operates as one and embraces the common good during unceratin times.

Bystanders who don’t intervene give a harasser an audience, attention and social status. You are a bystander if you: a) stand by and say nothing; b) feel peer pressure if you do not appear to support a harasser’s actions; or, c) fear that you may be the next target.

How bystanders can intervene:

  1. Pay attention, notice the situation.
  2. Check-in with the target to ensure they want an intervention. 
  3. If safe, make it known you disapprove (strategically intervene via distracting, confronting or asking others to help take charge).
  4. Provide the target support.
  5. Tell your supervisor.
  6. Document the incident.

Bystander interventions are tension building catalysts for change. Effective and safe intervention requires proper education and training. 360 offers Respect and Dignity Workshops to empower staff and leaders to reverse the bystander effect.

Harassment is largely preventable and bystander interventions are squarely in your organization’s span of control. The antidote starts with you.

Warren Postlewaite360 Workplace Solution’s CEO, is an accomplished workplace investigator and leader in the areas of organizational values, misconduct and harassment. The 360 team is comprised of experienced investigators, lawyers, policy developers, trainers, mediators and a specialized psychologist who all believe in our mantra “Better Lives at Work.”