By-standers play a role in preventing sexual harassment at work


by Anne-Marie Langan B.A., B.S.W., LL.B., LL.M.,
Staff Lawyer, The Legal Clinic

Surveys suggest that approximately 1 out of every 2 women, and 1 out of every 5 men, will experience sexual harassment at some point in their work lives. It is therefore very likely that you will either experience or witness an incident of sexual harassment in your workplace. The sexual harasser could be a supervisor, a co-worker, or a customer/client.

Over 70 % victims of sexual harassment at work don’t report it for a variety of reasons, including that they fear they are the only ones who feel uncomfortable with the behaviour. By using the tools outlined below, you could be helping your co-worker(s) have a voice, and your actions will likely result in a safer and emotionally healthier work environment.

Use humour to point out the inappropriateness of the behaviour:

An example I found in another article on a similar topic is as follows:
A woman in France was grabbed by a man with his friends on a street corner. When she turned around and said, “Congratulations, is that the first time you’ve ever touched a woman?” his friends laughed at him and none of the men ever bothered her again when she saw them in the future.

Like this woman, you can use humour to call the person out on his/her inappropriate behaviour. This often works, particularly when there are other bystanders, mainly due to the fact that the perpetra- tor wants to be liked and respected by others and does not want to be singled out from the group.

Bring it Home:

If you reframe the behaviour in a more personal context for the harasser, he/she may be able to understand why his/her behaviour is inappropriate.
Examples of this are:
Asking the person how they would feel if someone did/said something similar to them;
Replacing the identity of the victim with someone close to the person, such as a family member (sister, mother, daughter) and asking how they would react if another person treated their loved one the way they just had treated the victim.
Appeal to someone as a friend. If you have a trusting relationship with the person who is engaging in inappropriate behaviour, you can suggest that they think about how they will be perceived. For example, if your co-worker/friend is wearing a T-shirt with a sexually suggestive message, you can give them your opinion that behaving in this way could give other people a negative impression about them, and that you know them well enough to know that isn’t how they really view the world.

Give normative feedback:

Even if you are not close, or don’t know the person, you can still give them feedback about how their behaviour may be perceived by others. Saying something as simple as, “that’s just weird”, may have the desired effect of stopping the unwanted behaviour.

Take action as a group:

If someone in your workplace exhibits a pattern of inappropriate behaviour that is impacting more than one person, consider teaming up to confront the person about the impact that his/her behaviour is having on others. There truly is power in numbers!

If you would like more information on this topic, The Legal Clinic is offering free virtual workshops for employees on how to prevent and address on alternate months. The next workshop will take place the last week of October and will be announced on our website at The Legal Clinic also offers free information and advice to victims of sexual harassment. If you are a victim in need of legal assistance please call 613-264-7153 or email [email protected].


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