Bystander intervention at work: Obstacles and actions to take

bystander-intervention-450x350pxAs Brenda heads out the door at the end of the workday, she notices rain. She decides to go back to grab her umbrella from her desk. While rummaging through the drawers, she overhears a conversation between co-worker Molly and their boss Ben in a nearby cubicle. Ben compliments Molly on her choice of sweater today, saying that it really shows off her curves. Molly states that she needs to catch her train, but Ben urges her to join him for drinks instead. When Brenda subtly peeks over, she sees Molly trying to leave and Ben continuously blocking the doorway. Feeling she must do something, Brenda loudly says from her own cubicle, “Hey, Molly. Did you know it’s going to pour soon? Grab your raincoat and get out before it starts.” Molly quickly replies that she is coming right now and moves past a startled Ben.

Before a staff meeting, some early attendees talk about a new job opening at the company while others sit texting on their phones. Jeff says he’d like to apply but why bother because his skin is too light. Jim nods in agreement. Then, he curtly says to coworker Antonio, “Hey, Beaner, why don’t you apply? They aren’t looking for talent, just someone who can fulfill their diversity quota.” Antonio and a few others look like they want to crawl under the table. “Oh, just kidding,” Jim laughs. But Jill isn’t ready to let him off the hook. “I don’t think you guys are funny at all,” she states. “And Antonio deserves an apology. He’s a valuable member of our team and should never be spoken to in that manner.”

Cases such as these come up in many workplaces. While you may not be an instigator or a victim, your awareness of the situation puts you in the challenging spot of figuring out what to do.

What is bystander intervention?

The American Psychological Association defines a bystander as “an individual who observes or witnesses a situation of discrimination or violence committed by a perpetrator towards a victim and has the opportunity to either condone, intervene, or do nothing.” Bystander intervention occurs when a bystander steps in to challenge, de-escalate, or end the inappropriate behavior. Someone who takes such action is often called an active bystander or an upstander.

Smart organizations promote bystander intervention as a personal responsibility and the right thing to do. Silence reinforces the offender’s behavior by thinking others approve or at least won’t make it an issue. Victims feel further hurt and alienated when nobody seems to notice or care.

When such acceptance becomes the social norm, the environment is ripe for everything from microaggressions to dangerous situations such as interpersonal violence and sexual assault. In this toxic workplace, morale plummets and turnover rises. The company itself becomes at risk for reputational damage as well as potential lawsuits from individuals who felt targeted and unsupported.

Why is it hard to speak up?

“See something, say something” sounds like a simple mantra to follow. In reality, though, it can be difficult to implement.

Things that often prevent a bystander from becoming involved include:


Getting “in the middle” of someone else’s business often feels weird, especially when you will need to continue working with both parties. A bystander may fear intervening will embarrass the victim and cause tension with the offending colleague.

Uncertainty about what to do

Report the incident? Demand the instigator immediately stop? Go find a supervisor? Situations raise plenty of questions, and how to react does not always readily come to mind. Fear of saying or doing the “wrong” thing can lead to complete inaction.


Bystanders worry about what might happen if they become involved, including fears for their own safety and well-being. Will the offender start picking on you instead? Could you be pulled into nerve-wracking or time-consuming HR or legal investigations? Might your reputation suffer from being thought of as “too sensitive,” a “snitch,” or a “troublemaker”? Especially if the offender has power, could intervening jeopardize promotions or even staying employed?

Lack of authority

Witnesses may call into question their own status — wondering about overstepping bounds or not being taken seriously. They may reason that managers should resolve conflicts between co-workers, not fellow employees.

Social influence

In many cases, the presence of others leads an individual to shun involvement because of a psychological phenomenon known as The Bystander Effect. The person reasons that he or she must be reading the situation incorrectly because others are not taking action. Or, the person absolves himself because others are around who could do something (diffusion of responsibility).

How to be an active bystander

Do not think of bystander intervention as a one-size-fits-all thing. What someone chooses to do depends on factors such as the situation and their own personality. For instance, Jill in the opening felt comfortable enough to directly address a colleague’s racist remarks. Another person may have selected a different route, such as changing the group conversation to an alternate subject.

Bystander intervention training programs build an arsenal of possible responses. Right to Be (formerly known as Hollaback!), a non-profit working to end harassment, touts “5 D’s” to bystander intervention.

1. Distract

This tactic indirectly diffuses the situation by interrupting what is happening between the offender and the victim. Brenda in the opening did this when she called out for Molly to prepare for rain and leave the office. Distractions are often subtle, such as talking to the person being targeted about a totally different matter and ignoring the harasser. Others may be quite creative, such as spilling coffee or suffering a “coughing attack” that makes those in the vicinity unable to hear one another.

2. Delegate

Delegating involves asking a third party for help in intervening. Such a strategy could mean seeking assistance from someone in authority. It also could involve asking another bystander to back you up in addressing the offender or help you cause a distraction. Or, the two of you may work together to come up with an intervention plan.

3. Document

Recording the incident or taking notes about day, time, setting, and actions can help the victim down the line, especially if the person chooses to pursue legal action. However, prioritize aiding the victim in an emergency situation. Also, be aware of your own safety if selecting this method. And respect the wishes of what the targeted individual wants to do with your documentation.

4. Delay

Sometimes, a bystander does not act in the moment. The inappropriate incident may happen too quickly or not register immediately as something that would benefit from bystander intervention. Support the victim at a later time through a check-in. Ask questions such as “What do you need?” or “How can I help?” to show support. Let the individual know that what you witnessed was not OK. Sometimes, an empathetic ear does wonders for the healing process. Or, offer to accompany the person to report the incident or confront the offender if she so chooses. Be willing to help, but let the person decide the best route.

5. Direct

Assess the situation before confronting an offender. If speaking up seems safe, succinctly address the behavior. Stick with statements such as “Leave her alone,” “He asked you to stop,” or “Your remarks are inappropriate.” Avoid long lectures, debates, or aggression, as these things often make matters worse.

Building a supportive culture

Employees can take the initiative to create a work environment that does not tolerate bad behavior. If your company does not already mandate bystander intervention training, talk with management or HR about offering classes. Learning and practicing skills beforehand helps prepare you to step up in the moment. Also, holding such training sends the message that the organization wants workers to stay aware of what goes on around them and step in as necessary.

Another good thing for employees to do is evaluate their company’s reporting process. Does the handbook make it clear where victims or witnesses should turn in cases of sexual misconduct, bullying, or other transgressions? Is there a clear message of zero-tolerance? Does the administration vehemently state that employees who report wrongdoings will not face repercussions? If not, suggest these improvements. Even better than bystander intervention is preventing problematic situations from happening in the first place.