Experts say bystanders must call out sexual harassment in the workplace

People need to call out sexual harassment in the workplace in order to make it stop, according to experts who shared tips on how bystanders can intervene in a helpful way.

Bystander training teaches people to confront perpetrators, support victims

Pictured are bystander training materials used for intervention training programs in Nova Scotia. Bystander training specific to workplaces is offered by the YWCA in Regina. (Johannah May Black)

Nicole White says it's everybody's responsibility to call out sexual harassment in the workplace.  

"It can impact somebody for the rest of their lives. It impacts their ability to work in that space," she said. 

White is the project lead for Enough Already Saskatchewan, which is working to end and raise awareness about workplace sexual harassment. 

The federally-funded project includes members from the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, Saskatoon Industry Education Council, Sexual Assault Services of Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce and University of Saskatchewan College of Law's Create Justice research centre.

Sexual harassment in Saskatchewan workplaces has come into the spotlight this month following a CBC News investigation that detailed several allegations against Regina mental health advocate Jim Demeray stemming from his years in the restaurant industry between 2000 and 2016.  Demeray told CBC the allegations were baseless and untrue. Since then, more people have come forward. 

Seventeen women have alleged a pattern of verbal sexual harassment and three say Demeray acted inappropriately toward them while in a position of power.  Several men and women have shared witness accounts to corroborate allegations. 

White said workplace sexual harassment is prevalent in Saskatchewan. 

"If you look at [occupational health and safety] stats between 2016 and 2018,  they had 408 investigations related to sexual harassment," White said, adding the average comes out to nearly one investigation per work day per year.

The actual numbers are even higher, she said. 

"We know that those official complaints coming forward are just a small amount of the actual harassment that's happening." 

How to spot sexual harassment

Harassment isn't always physical. White said it can often be verbal things like sexualized language, sexist and demeaning comments or inappropriate "jokes." It can also come in unsolicited sexual texts or emails. 

"It could be visually displaying sexually explicit material, sexual innuendos, pressuring for sexual activity," she said. 

White said how people are affected can depend on how their superiors respond when they bring up the issue. 

"Is it investigated appropriately? And are there consequences to that?" She said. "We need every employer to take a complaint seriously and to investigate it and to sort of have very clear steps and consequences to those actions."

Nicole White said people need to intervene to disrupt the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace. (Submitted by Nicole White)

How to intervene

White said bystander intervention training is critical so that all employees know how to react quickly and appropriately.

"You want to have those quick comebacks, to shut down that harassing behaviour directly." 

She said people can also verbally intervene by saying things like, "I don't feel comfortable. I don't think that's right. You know that's not appropriate here." 

She said bystanders can also distract the perpetrator by drawing their attention away. Alternatively, she said you can focus on the person being harassed by delegating them a task, inviting them for coffee or calling an impromptu meeting.

Tara Molson, who teaches bystander training with the YWCA, said the overarching goal is to proactively transform people into "upstanders" so violence doesn't continue — or escalate. 

"We learn to be complacent in hearing violence and hearing teasing or when teasing turns to bullying," she said.  "When we can have little tools to just address the situation in a productive manner, then we can stop that." 

Tara Molson hopes that bystander intervention training can help people become 'upstanders' who take the responsibility upon themselves to help.  (Michael Bell Photography)

Molson said bystander training emphasizes non-violent communication techniques for intervention, but can also teach people how to respond if a colleague confides in them about workplace harassment or abuse. 

This education shouldn't be viewed differently than any other on-the-job training, she said. 

"As employees and as community members we should be able to respond appropriately, but we're never taught that information."

Allies in the workplace

Molson said people who are willing to intervene make it safer for victims and can lead to consequences for harassers.  

"Folks won't come forward if they don't have these people who have their back," she said.  "If we're not supporting one another as a community then folks are forced to just keep it inside, keep quiet and deal with trauma themselves."

Molson said it's even more important for colleagues step up if the perpetrator is in a position of power. 

White said witnesses should also write down what they see and offer support if colleagues need help going forward to human resources or their boss. 

She said people who don't feel supported by their boss can go to occupational health and safety, as well as the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission.

The YWCA is launching a bystander intervention program for community members during the fall, around the same time Enough Already Saskatchewan will launch a social media campaign for bystanders and an evidence-based online resources for workplaces.