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Bystander policies and their importance in combating sexual harassment and bullying

Eliminating poor behaviour in the workplace is everybody’s responsibility, and the onus cannot simply fall to the victim of said behaviour, say two presidents of women lawyer associations.

user iconJerome Doraisamy 29 October 2018 Big Law
Bystander policies and their importance in combating sexual harassment and bullying
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Cultural change is more likely to occur, and more rapidly, if employees were empowered and obligated to report conduct they consider to be unlawful, by way of workplace bystander policies and obligations to report, said acting president of NSW Women Lawyers and barrister Larissa Andelman.

“Spreading the burden of dealing with this unlawful conduct across the organisation with particular focus on persons who have some authority and power would be a potent and positive measure to reduce the occurrence of sexual harassment,” she said.

Australian Women Lawyers president Ann-Maree David agreed, saying that empowering bystanders who witness sexual harassment or bullying is essential in addressing and ultimately eradicating such behaviour.


“[Such] action is more likely to be successful when there is strong leadership demonstrating zero tolerance, bystanders know how to take action, bystanders have confidence action will be taken and the organisation actively promotes gender equality and respectful relationships,” she explained.

Ultimately, such conduct is not just a matter for a single firm or organisation, she added – “it brings the entire profession into disrepute”, she posited.

Further, the danger of not having bystander policies is that the “status quo will remain”, Ms Andelman said.

“Extensive research in Australia has conclusively demonstrated that persons who believe that they have been sexually harassed at work do not report the conduct either within their workplace or to an external body. Overwhelmingly, the reason given for not reporting is fear of retribution or other adverse conduct by the alleged perpetrator or the employer,” she said.

Promoting the positive role that bystanders can play in raising awareness of sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace may be effective in changing cultures of tolerance towards it and ultimately eradicating the problem altogether, Ms David posited.

“Sexual harassment and bullying are structural workplace issues, just like we see wrongdoing, for example theft or fraud, we would think that we should act or tell someone. I think the same attitude needs to prevail,” Ms Andelman posited.

“Of course, there needs to be protections for people who are accused of wrongdoing, procedural fairness and confidentiality are important considerations.”

What is needed moving forward, the pair noted, is for individual bystanders to act whether such a policy exists or not, especially those in positions of power.

“Anyone with supervisory responsibility should monitor the workplace environment to ensure that acceptable standards of conduct are observed at all times. If managers observe sexual harassment or bullying in the workplace, they should take appropriate steps in response to ensure the behaviour stops and is appropriately dealt with,” Ms David concluded.

Lawyers Weekly approached 25 law firms in Australia to ask whether they have a workplace policy denoting bystander obligation for staff members who witness or are aware of sexual harassment or bullying. Eight said they had explicit bystander policies, seven said they had policies that were either similar to or intended to achieve the same end as a bystander policy, three noted they did not have such a policy, and the others did not respond in time for publication.