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From bystander to challenger: how to stand up to sexual harassment at work

By Priya Datta, timeTo training facilitator and senior support advisor at NABS

As a bystander to sexist or inappropriate behaviour, it can take courage to challenge what you’ve witnessed. You may have been impacted by witnessing this behaviour or have concerns about possible repercussions. If you do feel able to take a stand, here are some tips that may support you.

It’s important to first check in with how you feel. Witnessing inappropriate behaviour can sometimes activate a bystander’s own nervous system, which may lead to fight, flight or freeze responses. Sometimes the activation of our nervous system can support us to effectively call out challenging behaviour (a healthy fight response), but sometimes it may lead us to become aggressive (fight), leave the scene (flight) or feel paralysed (freeze). If you notice that you are having such a response, think about what might help to regulate your system before taking action. One option might be to simply take a few deep breaths to calm yourself before challenging the behaviour.

Do not put yourself at risk, so only intervene if you can do so safely. If you can’t, you may want to inform someone else about what is happening, or in an emergency, call 999.

Secondly, give yourself permission to be clumsy. Often, we might overthink what, how and when to challenge behaviour, sometimes to the extent that we’re left feeling unable to take any action. This can be because of fear of reprisal or offending the other person. Remember that it’s okay to get it wrong; the person who behaved inappropriately is unlikely to have given the same consideration to the impact of their words or actions, so why should you have to?

You also have a choice over the forum in which you want to address the behaviour. Some options include addressing the comment or action publicly in the moment, speaking to the person one-on-one or with a trusted colleague, calling the NABS Advice Line for confidential, unbiased guidance or escalating to someone else in the company (such as a manager or HR). There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach, and the severity of the behaviour, the situation and the context may make one approach more suitable than another. Again, there’s no ‘right’ way; we’d encourage you to approach the situation in the way you would feel most safe and comfortable.

Calling out sexist or inappropriate behaviour can help to stop that behaviour in the moment, support the person directly affected and prevent further incidents. That said, if you felt unable to intervene on this occasion, or to escalate to someone else in the company, don’t be hard on yourself.  An alternative option, which can also be impactful, is to talk to the person who has been directly affected and offer them support.

Lastly, take a moment to notice if and how you’re impacted by what has happened.  If you are impacted, think about what support you may need. This can look like speaking to a friend or colleague about how the situation has left you feeling, or speaking to your manager or HR about ways in which they can help you process the event.

Empower your teams by arming them with the skills and confidence to #ChooseToChalllenge today. Book timeTo’s sexual harassment awareness training by visiting the timeTo website or emailing [email protected]

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