Careers

5 ways men can address—and help prevent—sexual harassment at work

Getty Images

A group of my best friends from high school were texting about the allegations against Harvey Weinstein when one of the men on the thread, who works in healthcare, raised an issue he recently encountered when discussing sexual harassment at work.

"The most awkward conversation to have in a workplace environment is about sexual harassment," he texted. "It was me and four female colleagues and I stood no chance from the beginning."

Despite wanting to participate in the conversation, he admitted to feeling unsure of how to ask questions or demonstrate his support for the women in the group without making a misstep or potentially causing offense.

Harvey Weinstein
Getty Images
Harvey Weinstein

But the need for men to speak up and out about incidents of sexual harassment at work has become increasingly clear. Data shows that roughly 71 percent of women do not report sexual harassment out of fear of retaliation, and far fewer bystanders report harassment they've witnessed.

"It's really on all of us," American Association of University Women CEO Kim Churches tells CNBC Make It. "It's the responsibility of every employee. If you see something, say something."

In a recent New York Times story about Weinstein, director Quentin Tarantino admitted to wishing he had followed the "see something, say something" model when it came to the producer's behavior.

"I knew enough to do more than I did," he said. "There was more to it than just the normal rumors, the normal gossip. It wasn't secondhand. I knew he did a couple of these things."

While harassment can be experienced by anyone, data shows that 25 percent of women report being sexually harassed in the workplace — more than double the percentage of men.

Here are five ways to be more proactive in preventing future misconduct and supporting colleagues who may be experiencing harassment:

1. Be an "upstander," not a bystander

It's easy to turn a blind eye to an incident when you feel you aren't directly involved. But failing to address inappropriate behavior that you've witnessed can still cause harm.

"If you see a colleague being sexually harassed, or hear comments about women that are demeaning or derogatory, say something in that moment," Noreen A. Farrell, executive director of Equal Rights Advocates, tells CNBC Make It.

Rather than hesitating, Farrell, whose organization advocates for the civil rights of women and girls, says a simple comment like, "That is making me uncomfortable," can show the harasser and the person being harassed that you're aware of what just happened.

"Being an 'upstander' rather than just a bystander has a positive ripple effect for the entire workplace," she adds.

2. Correct harassers, even when a female colleague isn't present

Being an ally for women experiencing sexual harassment goes beyond just speaking up in their presence.

"If there are guys gathered around a water cooler talking about a female colleague inappropriately, call them out right there so that it doesn't perpetuate," says Churches.

In a Harvard Business Review article about male silence on sexual harassment issues, United States Naval Academy professor W. Brad Johnson and United States Naval War College professor David G. Smith explain the difference between men who model passive gender inclusion and those who model active gender inclusion.

The former includes attending gender diversity workshops and monitoring your own individual behavior, while the latter includes vocally demanding respect and equality for women even when no one is watching.

"A man's legitimacy as an ally to women is only fully expressed when he is an intentional exemplar and fierce watchdog for the behavior of other men," write Johnson and Smith.

3. Privately speak to the individual being harassed

Before reporting an incident of sexual harassment to a higher authority, Gillian Thomas, who is a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union Women's Rights Project, says it's always best to speak with the person affected by the incident first.

"Check on how she is doing and say, 'I would like to take some action of the following kind.' Whether it's alerting a supervisor or going to HR, take her lead," Thomas tells CNBC Make It.

"It's very difficult for complaints to remain confidential. So any male ally should be confident that the colleague he is looking to stand up with is OK with how he is reporting it," adds Thomas, whose book "Because of Sex" explores women and workplace discrimination.

After reaching out to the harassed employee, the next step would be to report the incident to a manager or HR lead so they are made aware of the behavior.

"It helps an employee to know they have a group of people supporting them, and it leads to them not being quiet," says Churches.

4. Talk to the women in your life

"One of the many positive outcomes of the #MeToo campaign over the last week," says Thomas, "is men of all ages realizing the ubiquity of this issue and going the next step further by asking the women in their lives, 'Has this happened to you, what happened?' and respecting when women don't want to talk about what happened."

Even if the conversation doesn't yield as much insight as you had hoped, Farrell says being open to the discussion shows your colleague that you're an ally she can count on in the future.

"Unpacking sexual harassment is not rocket science," adds Farrell. "You will be surprised by how much you can learn by asking a colleague a few questions over coffee about what makes her uncomfortable and/or what she has or others have experienced."

However, when discussing sexual harassment with a colleague, be mindful that the topic can be twice as uncomfortable — or painful — to talk about for someone who has experienced it. By no means is that colleague obligated to educate you by telling their story.

"We hear a lot about the idea of 'checking your privilege,' but that's what it really means," says Thomas. "Examine your own life and the ways in which you have or haven't escaped these situations unscathed. Look at your own history with how you come at these issues and educate yourself accordingly."

5. Ask your employer for training

If you work for a company where the consequences of sexual harassment are not clearly outlined in an employee handbook or there is no formal training on how to spot and address the issue, Churches advises employees to not be afraid to ask for training.

"Training for staff can identify where we may all have unconscious bias towards men and women, and help create an environment where everyone is welcome in the workplace," she adds.

Like this story? Like CNBC Make It on Facebook.

Don't miss: Sheryl Sandberg shares 3 ways men can empower women at work