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Bystander Intervention | What to Do if You Witness Workplace Harassment

Lakshmi Hutchinson

Two young women discussing a serious topic.

Bystander intervention, an increasingly popular component of anti-harassment and inclusion trainings, is an impactful way to intervene and support co-workers if you witness sexual, racial, or other forms of harassment in the workplace. Read on to learn more about bystander intervention and some common and useful strategies.

What is bystander intervention, and why is there a need?

Bystander intervention training originally arose in the context of preventing sexual assault on college campuses. The aim was to equip individuals with the tools needed to intervene by using their presence and position to interrupt an assault, or speak out against language or behaviors that perpetuate sexual violence. 

Bystander intervention training has been successfully employed in military institutions as well, and is now quickly becoming a part of workplace approaches to combating harassment. In fact, in New York City, bystander intervention is a required component of anti-harassment trainings.

In a workplace context, bystander intervention is a critical part of creating a culture of accountability, and one that doesn’t tolerate harassment, microaggressions, or discrimination of any kind. And because all individuals are being asked to hold each other accountable, there is no laying the blame for transgressions (or responsibility for speaking up) on any one particular group of people.

Audrey Roofeh, CEO of Mariana Strategies, has delivered anti-harassment trainings across sectors. “The reason why bystander intervention is so important is because every individual has an impact on the workplace culture in big ways and little ways, and this goes to workplace climate,” she says. “Workplace climate is different from workplace culture in that it's the unspoken norms of the workplace. It's the things you do when nobody is looking. It's up to everyone, when they see racist microaggressions in the workplace, to speak up.” 

Intervention strategies for witnesses to harassment

So how exactly do you go about speaking up when you witness someone doing or saying something hurtful to a co-worker? In the moment, you might struggle to put your feelings into words or feel that you don’t have the authority to say anything. This is where intervention strategies come in handy.

  • Prepare and practice phrases you’re comfortable using to question hurtful or discriminatory language and behavior. Whether it’s a response to a racist joke or a threatening comment, there are ways to speak up and not only address the transgression, but hopefully open up a dialogue as well. 

“What you said made me feel uncomfortable because…”

“Can we talk about what you just said?”

Or, if you’re in a group setting, you can take the opportunity to encourage others to speak up, and make it clear that this is a community issue.

“Is everyone else hearing this?”

If the moment passes too quickly and you miss the opportunity to speak up, you can always initiate a conversation after the incident. 

  • If the offensive behavior is coming from someone you’re not comfortable confronting directly, there are more subtle strategies that you can use to defuse a situation. Distraction and interruption, common techniques for disrupting sexual harassment and assault, take the focus off the target and shift them to you and what you’re saying.
  • Recognize that your gender, race, age, or other characteristics may put you in a position that makes it easier for you to speak up. Allyship refers to a member of a group with privilege listening, standing up for, and amplifying the voices and struggles of oppressed groups. Using your privilege to intervene when you see someone in a marginalized group being harmed is a great example of allyship in action.

Next steps after intervening

Ideally, your workplace is an inclusive one in which accountability is taken seriously. Bystander intervention can only be successful with the support and buy-in of the organization as a whole, and without fear of reprisal. Here is what can (and should) happen after an incident:

  • First, check in on the person who was harmed or targeted. Express your support and ask how you can help. It could be as simple as providing an empathetic ear and voicing your support. Depending on the circumstances, you may also offer to speak to a supervisor, make a report, or accompany them to HR.
  • In the best-case scenario, the person who caused the offense or transgression did not do so maliciously. It’s possible that by addressing them directly and talking with them one-on-one, you can reveal a blind spot that they may have (in terms of their own biases). For those who want to make it right, Roofeh advises that, “You listen, you apologize meaningfully, and you do the work to understand why your actions were harmful so that you don't do it again.”
  • In cases where the person who committed the offense does not want to make it right, the organization needs to step in and take action. Even in the social-impact space, organizations have faced scrutiny in the past for the way they’ve mishandled harassment claims. Like any employer, nonprofits need to have clear and enforceable expectations of what behaviors will not be tolerated. 

Bystander intervention can be a powerful tool to create a more civil community. When all community members feel empowered to speak up after seeing a fellow member being harmed, the whole organization benefits. 

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Lakshmi Hutchinson

Lakshmi Hutchinson is a freelance writer with experience in the nonprofit, education, and HR fields. She is particularly interested in issues of educational and workplace equity, and in empowering women to reach their professional goals. She lives in Glendale, California with her husband, twin girls, and tuxedo cat.

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