By Calvin Gower, Trüpp.

The foundation for creating a respectful workplace starts with leadership modeling the right values and establishing a framework of policies, training, and performance expectations based on those values. Sustaining a deeply-ingrained culture of respect, however, relies on each employee understanding the company’s expectations and knowing how to respond when they find themselves involved in a questionable situation.

In an inappropriate encounter, you may find yourself in one of three roles—the target, the offender, or a bystander. We often focus on employees who are the target of inappropriate behavior or the alleged offender. Yet, studies have shown that bystanders are the key to reducing workplace sexual harassment, discrimination, and retaliation, especially where employees have been equipped to respond when hearing about or witnessing these kinds of behaviors. Let’s explore the barriers that may be preventing your employees from taking action when they find themselves in one of these roles.

The Target

Much focus is placed on targets standing up for themselves and putting an end to unwanted behavior. But this presents a challenge, as that person is likely facing powerful barriers such as shock or self-doubt. These barriers often result in the need for increased processing time before the target is able to understand what happened or how to defend themselves. Depending on their internal assessment and the external influences of their company culture, they may even determine that the cost of taking action outweighs the benefits of resolving the issue. Equipping employees to recognize unacceptable behavior and how to respond ahead of time can help targets overcome these barriers.

The Offender

While the offender may be disrespectful on purpose, it is more likely that their actions stem from a lack of awareness. The offender often succumbs to unconscious bias, saying or doing things based on their personal experiences without realizing it. This significantly diminishes the chance that they will recognize, let alone address their behavior in an appropriate way. Training employees on the topic of self-awareness, the types of behaviors that are acceptable and not acceptable, and how to respond when confronted, can not only prevent discrimination and harassment but also keep it from escalating when it occurs.

The Bystander

What about the bystander who witnesses or becomes aware of inappropriate behavior? The bystander effect is a common human behavior where an employee’s response to a situation is guided by looking to cues from others and avoiding getting involved when no one else is taking action. The bystander may be unsure they’re interpreting the situation correctly, question whether it’s their place to intervene, or even fear how the offender will respond. Like the target, the best defense against these barriers is being prepared and empowered to respond.

Reducing discrimination and harassment in the workplace comes down to creating an environment that prioritizes respect and not accepting inappropriate behaviors. This kind of cultural change takes a commitment from everyone. At the leadership level, this involves modeling appropriate behavior, implementing policies and training programs, providing clear reporting channels, and empowering employees to take action. When employees are equipped to recognize the kinds of behavior that are unacceptable and are prepared to respond, the likelihood of questionable behavior is diminished.