When it comes to preventing sexual harassment and assault, small actions can make a big difference. When students see disrespect or pressure, they can practice “bystander intervention”: stepping in to reinforce community values and prevent harm. This isn’t a new or complicated skill. Most students already intervene often: checking in on a friend or speaking up when people make hurtful comments.
Administrators, faculty, and staff can encourage students to intervene in a wide range of situations, particularly professional ones.
Students may worry about intervening in professional settings such as internships, work-study placements, or part-time jobs. They are likely to hold low-status positions and may worry about the consequences of speaking up, especially if the power dynamic is uneven. It’s important to emphasize that there are many ways to effectively intervene and that they can use the skills they’ve already been practicing in social situations in new contexts, including professional environments.
Emphasize to students that they should expect to feel safe and respected at all times in the workplace and can help ensure that others feel the same way. Here are some ideas:
- Work with offices that manage work-study and internship placements to give students clear expectations of appropriate workplace behavior. Ensure that students are familiar with support resources, such as Title IX coordinators or Human Resources representatives.
- Remind students that the most effective interventions are often small, subtle, and even unnoticed. Emphasize the value of checking in with a person who is being targeted, not participating in harmful behavior, or redirecting conversation back to work matters. These small changes can have a surprisingly large impact.
- Encourage students to intervene when the stakes are still low. It’s much easier to intervene during relatively low-stake situations, such as before a disrespectful comment becomes a pattern. Casual disrespect can escalate to become more seriously harmful.
- Teach students that intervention is a part of professionalism. Students who are attentive to the people around them and take steps to ensure that their workplaces are respectful are better employees. Present bystander intervention as a part of professional development, and let students know that they will use these skills throughout their careers.
To learn more about bystander intervention, check out Cornell University’s bystander initiative, “Intervene,” that includes videos, resources, and workshop materials. This interactive training, useful for both undergraduate and graduate students, offers concrete strategies for intervening in a wide range of social, academic, and professional settings.
Jeanine Dames, JD, director of office of career strategy, Yale University, Connecticut.
Laura Santacrose, MPH, assistant director, Skorton Center for Health Initiatives, Cornell University, New York.
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