Katie Travia opens her training session with a question: “So, what comes to mind when you think of sexual harassment?” she asks the group of 16 managers eyeing her from a U-shaped table.
Silence ensues. No one looks happy to be there.
Ms. Travia coaxes a few responses from participants, then acknowledges their discomfort: “Nobody walks into these sessions saying, ‘This is fun! I’m so happy I’m going to sexual-harassment training today.’”
Allegations may be flying on Twitter and heads rolling in the executive suite, but at ground zero in the explosion of sexual-harassment claims—the workplace—silence largely rules.
Although getting bystanders as well as victims to speak up offers the best hope of halting sexual harassment, bystanders are often almost as reluctant as victims to report misconduct or step in to stop it. A visit to an anti-harassment training session offers insight into the reasons, and some tips on breaking the silence.
Managers and supervisors from a cross-section of businesses, from banking and government agencies to fast-food restaurants and nonprofits, attended the 2-1/2-hour training last month at the offices of OperationsInc., a Norwalk, Conn., human-resources consultant. Although most employers offer anti-harassment training online, regulators and researchers recommend small, face-to-face sessions like this one for engaging participants and rooting out misconceptions about appropriate behavior.
Getting participants talking isn’t easy. “If you say you’re going to sexual-harassment training, people say, ‘Oh, did you do something wrong?’” says one participant, Andrew Chhom , who manages a six-person team at Charkit Chemical Co. in Norwalk. “I didn’t tell my friends where I was going.”
Ms. Travia, a training manager for OperationsInc., asks participants what to do.
Step up and confront the perpetrator, says LaNelle Alexander, the human-resources director for buildOn.org, a global nonprofit in Stamford, Conn. “I’d say, ‘If that had happened to me, I wouldn’t like it,’” then explain the impact on the victim and the need to stop the behavior, she says.
Another option is to interrupt and redirect the victim or harasser. “Pivot the situation by saying to the victim, ‘I need to talk to you, can you come over to my office?,’” Ms. Travia says.
Any unwelcome sexual advance or request can constitute illegal harassment if it creates a hostile work environment, Ms. Travia explains, or if the victim’s employment or advancement is made contingent on cooperating.
A central tenet of anti-harassment law—that how the victim perceives another person’s speech or behavior is more important than the perpetrator’s intent—can be bewildering to some trainees, says David Lewis, OperationsInc.’s president.
Giving lots of hugs, for example, can be unwelcome regardless of the hugger’s intent, Ms. Travia says: “The accepted form of touch is a handshake, and leave it at that.” Leaning in close also can be viewed as harassment if it’s unwelcome.
Co-workers might love laughing and joking over off-color selfies taken while barhopping together the previous night, but they could easily be creating a hostile environment for co-workers, Ms. Travia says. Even a compliment on a co-worker’s dress can be out-of-bounds if it’s delivered in sexually suggestive tones or accompanied by “elevator eyes”—raking the co-worker’s body head-to-toe and back again with a suggestive gaze.
The person who reports harassment not only has to call out the bad behavior, but often must challenge the beliefs of perpetrators who don’t think they’ve done anything wrong or may feel entitled to behave badly. That’s one of many reasons abuses sometimes go on for years. Of the 10% of rank-and-file employees who say they’ve been harassed sexually in the past 12 months, fewer than 1 in 4 reported it, says a recent survey of 1,223 workers by the Society for Human Resource Management.
Victims’ silence increases the risk that others will start seeing the abuses as normal and conclude, “That’s just the way things are done around here,” Ms. Travia says.
“Bystanders’ intervening is more and more important these days, because we know the victims aren’t comfortable coming forward,” she says. While bystanders seldom witness the most egregious abuses, they often see precursor behaviors, when harassers begin pressuring victims and testing boundaries. But bystanders often share the same fears about speaking up as victims, including damaging their careers or straining relationships, research shows.
Mr. Chhom, the chemical-company manager, says that while he’s never witnessed sexual harassment at work, he has dealt with bullies in past roles as a teacher and coach and he’s confident he could intervene if necessary. “The predator patterns would be the same,” he says.
As for the principles of avoiding harassment, such as respecting others’ space, leaving personal issues at home and paying attention to how others feel, Mr. Chhom says they seem a lot like basic good manners: “You need to show a level of respect toward everyone you work with,” he says.
Write to Sue Shellenbarger at [email protected]