Skip to content
Boston Society of Architects

Ethics Feature

Say something

Just practice: Bystander training steps up (Part 4 of 9)


Partitions, 2014; gesso, acrylic, varnish on panel, 28 × 29.5 cm.

Emily Moore

We are in the middle of a deeply unsettling time in the quest for gender equity in the workplace. Witnessing the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, Mario Batali, and Richard Meier, satisfying as that might be, doesn’t always provide clarity. How can we learn from this national mess, this tangle of #metoo, and create a useful framework for the conversation?

When it comes to sexual harassment, architects are no different from other professionals. They can stumble, trip, and fall just like everyone else. Clumsily. Awkwardly. Defensively. The traditional training to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace is often designed to avoid lawsuits, bad publicity, or negative impacts on a firm’s bottom line. Based on the binary idea that there are harassers and there are victims, it is far less effective than it should be.

Most people don’t want to see themselves in either category, so gender stereotypes are reinforced rather than defused, and the reporting either doesn’t happen or loses steam and focus. Human Resources is generally the fulcrum, the collection point for accusations, and the principal investigator of he said/she said. If employees have less than full trust in their HR representative, few will feel heard or believed or supported.

A relatively new solution to this problem is Bystander Training. Rather than encourage people to go behind closed management doors to report bad behavior, it teaches a broader message of collective responsibility and collective action. A third party — the witness — takes a role between victim and perpetrator, observing the behavior and empowered to intervene. The training provides tools — mainly verbal intervention tactics and strategies to distract or divert behaviors in the moment — that help support someone who is experiencing discrimination or harassment. Workshops help people take positive, nonaggressive action that empowers them to feel competent and responsible, rather than passive and complicit. The approach is gaining traction on college campuses, in sports teams, and among those looking to defuse harassment of immigrants or other vulnerable groups.

When it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, bystander training is intended to help address a common thread that underlies many of these cases: People seemed to know about a perpetrator’s reputation, sometimes for years. Why didn’t anybody speak up?

Research from the Australian Human Rights Commission reveals that bystanders are far more likely than targets to take action against harassment, but it requires an office culture brimming in integrity. Trust that there will be effective follow-up is key to a bystander taking action. The Australian report notes that “some of the most significant reasons for underreporting sexual harassment are beliefs that the harasser will not receive any penalty and low expectations by employees that justice will be done.” People not only need to feel safe enough to speak up, they need to feel respected by their peers and even more confident that they are respected by management.

How do you know if your firm falls into this category?

Look around. Is there a long line of people who want to work there? Is turnover low? Are the leaders secure, unconcerned about the next generation moving up to replace them? Do people spend time together outside of work? Is work-life balance truly supported, so that flexibility and health are actual benefits? Is there an obvious absence of fear? Is conflict rare, and dealt with effectively when it does occur? The list of questions is long and keeps growing. How many women work in the firm? What percentage of the leadership is female? Is there an honest emphasis on wellness and family? When these issues are easily and openly discussed and the policies exist to support them, you are working in the right place. These are the foundations of an office culture that will train its entire staff to prevent harassment and will not tolerate the behavior if it occurs.

Artwork: Born and based in Scotland, Emily Moore is an alumna of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design international exchange program. Her paintings and collages explore the tension between environments and the manmade structures that inhabit them. All images courtesy of the artist.