When it comes to preventing harassment, the U.S. military has used the proven tactic of bystander intervention for years. The concept is simple, speak out against harmful words or actions before they escalate to the level of unlawful harassment. Yet when it comes to putting this idea into practice, it's not as easy as it seems. The idea of saying something to someone who puts down a colleague or makes a derogatory statement about women can be daunting. The key, however, is to carefully select your intervention strategy. The framework for intervening the military teaches servicemen is based around the "Three Ds"- Direct (give commands or orders); Distract (draw attention away); and Delegate (appoint someone else to help). I propose a fourth "D" Delay, which means using one of the other strategies when the time is right.
When it comes to successful intervention, timing is everything. If you confront someone about bad behavior in front of a group of their peers, it's highly likely that they will respond in a defensive manner. However, if you approach the intervention in a private setting with the intention of protecting their best interest and reputation, a better outcome is guaranteed. Intervening with statements that simply state what you have noticed and how it's being perceived can be eye-opening for the potential harasser. How many times have we heard people accused of harassment say, "that's not what I meant" or "I didn't mean to offend anyone"? Everyone has to remember that when we are talking about harassment, intentions don't matter. What matters when it comes to demonstrating respect and civility in the workplace, we have to focus on how our words and actions are perceived. The state of California defines harassment as "words or behaviors that create a hostile or offensive environment". Yet what creates a hostile environment for one person can be totally different for somebody else. At the end of the day, harassment is personal. We can never know exactly what words or actions may create an offensive or hostile work environment for someone. What we can do, however, is build an understanding of the workplace values that we would ideally like to see everyone represent in their daily interactions with one another.
When everyone recognizes that they have a role to play in promoting respect in the workplace, the cultural norms that ignore micro-aggressions and even more serious affronts will change. We have been conditioned for years to let bad behavior slide. Whether it's fear of embarrassment, the expectation that someone else will speak up, or simply assuming that it's not our place, we rationalize non-action all the time. It's time for that non-action to stop. When companies invest in teaching their leadership and staff that they all play an important role in maintaining a respectful workplace, everyone wins.