Bystanders vs. Upstanders: The Changing Violence and Harassment Climate in Today’s Workplaces

What role does the inaction of bystanders play in workplace violence and harassment? Some may argue that bystanders don’t have a role, and others may feel that a bystander can be just as guilty as a perpetrator.

It’s important to note that there are NO grey areas when it comes to violence or sexual violence – workplace or otherwise. In fact, Ontario, has a $41,000,000 initiative titled It’s Never Okay, that is leading the way to a safer Ontario where everyone is free from the threat, fear, or experience of sexual violence and harassment. The message is clear: violence and harassment of any sort, in the workplace or otherwise, including sexual violence and harassment, is NEVER OKAY.

What is a Bystander?

A bystander is defined as one who is present at an event or incident but does not take part. With respect to workplace violence and harassment, the term bystander also includes one with knowledge of an event or incident who doesn’t report it. A bystander is not a perpetrator; but, is a bystander guilty through knowledge and/or inaction? That’s where the grey area exists.

Bystanders sometimes feel powerless in a situation. They may feel that they can’t help. On the contrary, there are many actions a bystander can take. For example:

  • They can intervene directly or come to the defense of a victim if they see harassment or assault taking place, provided it is safe to do so
  • They can offer support to a victim
  • They can report inappropriate behaviours to HR, their supervisor, or the employer as per the organization’s Workplace Violence and Harassment program
  • They can refuse to tolerate inappropriate behavior, or accept questionable behaviour
  • They can know that they will be protected from reprisal for reporting an event or incident

The Ontario Government and #whowillyouhelp

The Ontario government is invested in ensuring that bystanders understand they have the power to intervene and potentially prevent violence and harassment from happening and/or escalating. They released four provocative vignette style ads as part of the #whowillyouhelp PSA campaign that is meant to start conversations about violence and harassment, specifically the role of the bystander. One of the vignettes features what appears to be a supervisor massaging a worker. He looks at the camera and says, “Thanks for minding your business.” The message is clear: the bystander is complicit in the crime.

What does this Mean in the Workplace?

The result of such campaigns and movements is that the issue of workplace violence and harassment is being brought to the forefront of public conversation. Frankly, it’s about time. Gone are the days where it’s okay to assign roles and values to workers based on their gender, and gone are the days that violence and/or harassment are being tolerated, accepted, or ignored. The time of staying silent is over. Transgressions are being reported.

What Part does #metoo Play in the Workplace?

#metoo has been a groundbreaking movement for victims of sexual assault and harassment everywhere. One positive change being driven by #metoo is that more victims no longer feel that they cannot report an incident because no one will believe them, or because they’re alone. #metoo has given many of those who have remained silent the support and courage required to come forward with their stories and say “This happened to me too.”

The Government’s Role in Safer Workplaces

The Ontario government continues to put initiatives in place aimed at increasing awareness and reducing violence and harassment at work. Their #whowillyoutell PSA is also indicative of the effort the government has made to ensure that crimes do not continue to go unreported. In addition to their public campaigns and movements, the Ontario government brought forth the Sexual Violence and Harassment Plan Act, 2016, which includes actions and changes, such as:

  • Removed limitation periods for civil proceedings based on sexual assault – and, in certain cases, sexual misconduct or assault – so that survivors can bring their civil claims forward whenever they choose to do so.
  • Eliminated limitation periods for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence to make a compensation application to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board.
  • Amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act came into effect in September 2016. Survivors fleeing domestic or sexual violence can now end their tenancies early with 28 days’ notice.
  • Amendments to the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) came into effect in September 2016, requiring employers to investigate incidents and complaints to address workplace harassment, including sexual harassment. The Ministry of Labour hired a team of inspectors and provided specialized training to support enforcement for employers’ compliance with the OHSA and address workplace harassment complaints, including sexual harassment.
  • As of January 1, 2017, all publicly assisted postsecondary institutions and private career colleges must have a stand-alone sexual violence policy which is reviewed every three years with student involvement.

Change to the OHSA suggest that Ontarians will no longer accept harassment, violence, or sexual harassment in the workplace and that bystanders are ready to become upstanders.

What is an Upstander?

Upstander is defined as, “A person who speaks or acts in support of an individual or cause, particularly someone who intervenes on behalf of a person being attacked or bullied.” In the workplace, an upstander culture can be encouraging by making reporting known or suspected violence, harassment, or sexual harassment a mandatory requirement under the workplace violence and harassment program. As well, ensuring that all workers know how and to whom to make a report through policy and program train is essential. Lastly, to ensure that all upstanders who want to make a report may do so, it is a legal requirement that there is a process in place for anyone who wants to report a supervisor or manager when that person is both the accused and also the person to whom a report would typically be made. A report is not the only way to be an upstander. Remember the #whowillyouhelp PSA: instead of giving the abuser the opportunity to say, “thanks for minding your business,” give victims a reason to say, “Thank you for stepping in.”

The culture and climate in the workplace are changing, and it’s changing for the better. Protections for all workers are being strengthened, and workers are experiencing safer and more accepting workplaces than ever before. It’s encouraging to see such positive change happening so quickly. It’s long overdue, and promising, to see workplace violence and harassment and sexual harassment spurned by professionals, workers, and employers across the board. Movements like #itsneverokay are sending the message to all of society that a stand has been taken. The line has officially been drawn in the sand: time to align yourself on the right side.

If you have questions about the changing workplace violence and harassment climate, OSG can help. We have been successfully training and consulting companies for over 20 years, and we are the largest private provider of health and safety training in Ontario. Call 1.800.815.9980 to speak to one of our health and safety experts, or feel free to send us a contact form.

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Written by Jennifer Miller | Curriculum Development Coordinator


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