February 11, 2021

Providing bystander intervention training is one of many proactive steps that organizations can take to prevent sexual harassment and prepare employees to speak up when they witness unacceptable behavior.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) Select Task Force on Harassment in the Workplace identified bystander intervention and workplace civility as among the training topics that may help prevent conduct from rising to the level of unlawful harassment. With the support of an organization’s leadership, a task force co-chair said, bystander intervention training could be a “game changer in the workplace” and create a sense of collective responsibility that empowers employees to be engaged bystanders in preventing harassment.

What is bystander intervention?

Bystander intervention refers to situations where someone who isn’t directly involved steps in to assist someone who may be at risk. Active bystanders have the knowledge, tools and motivation to know how and when to interrupt harassing behaviors and defuse potentially harmful situations. When active bystanders show support and compassion for marginalized co-workers who are targets of bias, microaggressions and other non-inclusive behavior, they help diversity and inclusion efforts, too.

What are common bystander intervention strategies?

Some common bystander intervention techniques involve disrupting, confronting, supporting and reporting — actions that can all be applied to online situations. And when people are not face-to-face, bystanders may be more comfortable stepping up to say or do something.

Disrupting the situation

This technique focuses on disrupting the situation by distracting the harasser, the target of the harassment or both, depending upon the circumstances. Sometimes, all it takes is changing the subject or starting a conversation with the person being harassed.

Confronting the offender

Confronting the harasser doesn’t mean being confrontational or jumping in to say something in the heat of the moment. Confronting a harasser safely involves gauging whether to take action immediately or later. The idea is that if harassers believe others will step in and tell them their behavior is not acceptable, they may be less likely to engage in misconduct.

Supporting the target

Showing support and empathy for a target of harassment is an opportunity for employees to be allies. Talking directly with someone after an incident, offering to go with them to human resources or reassuring them it is not their fault can help alleviate the sense of isolation they may feel.

Reporting the incident

Reporting misconduct is key to preventing it in the future, and bystanders (as well as all employees) need to be familiar with the organization’s procedures and options for reporting incidents, whether that involves talking with a supervisor or HR manager or using an anonymous hotline or app. Even if a bystander doesn’t report an incident immediately after it occurs, they can still show support by reporting it later on. Organizations should reinforce the message that people who speak up and report misconduct are protected against retaliation.

Traliant Insight

As part of an organization’s strategy to prevent all forms of harassment and foster a respectful and inclusive culture, bystander intervention training can play a pivotal role in stopping toxic behavior and creating a safe, positive work environment.