Bystander Intervention


What do you do if you witness a co-worker being molested or discriminated against? The workplace is a crucial environment where unhealthy conduct can thrive owing to complacency on the part of employees who might not be willing to meddle in the affairs of others for fear of being victimized. This situation gives rise to the concept of ‘bystander intervention.’

In the workplace, bystander intervention refers to enlightening employees to be accountable to each other and be ready to act if they witness the situations such as discrimination, sexual harassment, microaggressions, or another misdemeanor. Such practice protects employees against becoming scapegoats for taking proactive action to stop injustice. For healthy coexistence in the workplace, it is important to have bystander intervention in place. Employees should be assured their accountability for colleagues will not land them in trouble.

Do you know about bystander intervention at work? Have you ever been victimized for speaking up after witnessing an issue at work? What should you do when you witness a coworker being harassed? Keep reading to learn about bystander intervention in the workplace and possible actions to take when you witness sexual harassment at work.

Bystander intervention: safeguarding the workspace

The term “bystander intervention” has gained popularity in recent years. A bystander is a person present during a problematic situation and such a person becomes an ‘active bystander when they take action after witnessing or hearing about the incident. A bystander might intervene either by distracting the perpetrator, calling for help, or directly confronting the situation. However, such encounters often lead to confrontation and conflict, this explains the reluctance by many to help in such situations.

Bystanders of sexual harassment are people who are present and witness the harassment but aren’t directly involved in it. They could also be someone who is told about an incident after-the-fact. For victims and targets of sexual harassment, it can be incredibly challenging to confront perpetrators. Research shows less than one in five people who experience sexual harassment at work make a formal report or complaint. Because so few people report their experiences of sexual harassment, the role of bystanders is crucial in calling out harmful behavior and supporting colleagues who experience sexual harassment at work.

To seek an explanation behind people’s reluctance to intervene during problematic situations will lead to an understanding that avoiding confrontation and conflict is inherent in humans. The reluctance to intervene in conceivably high-risk situations is a by-product of one’s inherent desire to avoid harm. In addition, when an incident of sexual harassment is witnessed, there is often more than one person present. This can often make bystanders rationalize the decision not to intervene by pushing accountability to others. This situation is called the ‘bystander effect.’

The engagement of bystanders in actively responding to and preventing sexual harassment has gained significant momentum in public policy and program development in Australia. While many often recognize the significance of bystander intervention, it is however a challenging concept to implement in reality.

How can bystanders take action on workplace sexual harassment?

One of the fundamental reasons why people are often reluctant to intervene after witnessing sexual harassment is rooted in a misconception of bystander intervention. Most people associate bystander intervention with a confrontational encounter, however, it is important to acknowledge the broad range of behaviors that bystanders can implement, depending on the people involved and the context of the incident.

VicHealth, The Behavioural Insights Team, and Women Victoria put together a resource framed as the “ladder of active bystanding”, which shows a range of behaviours active bystanders are encouraged to use through bystander initiatives. Actions higher up the ladder are considered stronger ways of discouraging sexual harassment; these are considered to be more appropriate where the behaviour of the perpetrator is particularly intentional, severe, and explicit.

Actions at the bottom of the ladder may be considered appropriate when the bystander is concerned for their safety or the victim’s safety. Ultimately, everyone has different levels of comfort, skill, and experience with intervening in situations of conflict. It is therefore important for bystanders to acknowledge their confidence in such situations as this will guide their response and action.

The type of bystander action to take will differ in different workplace contexts, so it may be necessary to adjust what action you intend to take in line with the context of your workplace.

Bystander Intervention - AWNA

Here are some of the actions you can take depending on the situation at your workplace.

1. Report: you can file an internal report for such behaviour either to the human resource department or report directly to management. This will be appropriate if the situation is passive and may require further investigation for proof.

2. Call Out: Calling out and educating both parties is another alternative action to stop sexual harassment in the workplace. This could look like a calm disagreement and publicly declare the behaviour to be unacceptable while explaining why it’s important to stop

3. Check-In: Express care for the victim’s condition by checking up on them, expressing your disapproval, asking if they are doing okay, and offering your continued support. This will encourage them to seek help and open up to the idea of reporting their plight to the right authority.

4. Diffuse: if you are scared of confrontation, seek a proper way to diffuse the situation. Make a light-hearted comment to try and stop the situation; this could be said in private or with an audience. Leave a pointed silence or a look of disapproval.

Victimization: A by-product of Bystander intervention

Another reason why employees are reluctant to intervene is the risk of victimization. Victimization involves retaliatory action, or the threat of such action, against a person because they made a complaint of sexual harassment or because they took bystander action in support of a complaint.

A person could be victimized by the harasser themselves, or by co-workers who support the harasser, especially if either of these parties is in more senior organizational positions or have power over the person being victimized.

There are specific provisions in the Sex Discrimination Act that prohibit victimization in some circumstances. Organizations that encourage bystanders to respond to sexual harassment should recognize the risk of victimization and communicate to employees that bystanders will be protected from victimization and offer disciplinary measures if victimization does occur.

What can be done by employers and workplaces to encourage bystander action?

Employers must be proactive alongside individual employee responses in overcoming the reluctance to intervene. Employers can do this by encouraging employees to intervene and offering support to them when they finally do.

Employers can encourage bystander action through multiple methods such as:

  • Developing policies and procedures for bystander action on sexual harassment.
  • Encouraging top management to speak out positively about taking bystander action.
  • By providing multiple communication channels to report sexual harassment. This can help employees who wish to stay anonymous.
  • Responding to reports of sexual harassment promptly.
  • Providing education and training about bystander action: This can teach employees how to safely and effectively intervene in problematic incidents and challenge sexual harassment in the workplace.
  • Creating a work environment that encourages reporting of sexual harassment. They can offer an incentive to motivate employees to speak up.
  • By providing training for those responsible for acting on reports of sexual harassment.
  • Conducting ongoing monitoring and evaluation of bystander strategies in the workplace.

You have rights

If you believe you have experienced sexual harassment or believe you have been victimized as a result of reporting sexual harassment or taking bystander action, you can make a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission. Call our dedicated specialist team at A Whole New Approach on 1300 766 700 for a confidential complimentary consultation.