Bystander is a Verb

Understanding Bystander Intervention

According to the dictionary, the word “bystander” is a noun describing a person who is present at an event or incident but does not take part.  So why are we claiming it’s a verb?

Okay, you got us. Verbs describe action, so technically, “bystander” isn’t one. But, when it comes to preventing workplace bias, bullying and harassment, it should be.

Enter the phrase “bystander intervention” and the belief that people should know how to politely but firmly stand up for those they see being disrespected, demeaned or devalued.

Just like we see being done in the clip here….

Bystander Intervention: The Realities

Let’s start by looking at Bystander Intervention from a human perspective.

What do you feel when you see someone being verbally abused? How about when you hear inappropriate jokes or comments, or observe sexually suggestive behavior or innuendo?

It’s profoundly uncomfortable, isn’t it? You find yourself listing all kinds of reasons NOT to take action.

  • You know it’s wrong. But everyone involved is an adult, and adults are supposed to know how to take care of themselves.
  • It’s really none of your business what goes on between other people. (You might not like to be spoken to — or about — in those ways, but that’s you.)
  • It’s not your fault you happened to overhear or see something that was intended to be private.
  • You have no desire to be the political-correctness police, and you’re certainly not paid to anger people by interfering.

In any event, the moment eventually passes and everyone can get on with their day. Right?

Wrong. Despite all your justifications, you find that the incident leaves a bad taste in your mouth, and you are left wondering what you could have, or should have, done differently.

This is where bystander intervention comes in.

You’ve probably heard of bystander intervention, but you may not know what it actually means in practice. And while you undoubtedly would prefer that harassment and bullying didn’t ever happen, when it comes time to do something – to become more than just a bystander –you will need a process to follow...especially one you can tweak to fit the situation and your personal style and preference.

Bystander Intervention: The Practicalities

There are three options, also known as the Three Ds, in bystander intervention.

But before we dig into them, let’s make a few things clear:

  1. You should never put yourself in any danger, especially physical danger. Adjust your approach, including which of the three D techniques you choose, according to all aspects of the situation: what’s happening, who it’s happening to, the position and personality of the person you will be addressing, and how safe you feel.  
  2. Remember that it is important for people to stand up for themselves. Before taking action on your own, you might first say to the target of the bullying or harassment, “What’s happening here is not right. Have you talked to Jessica and let her know this behavior is wrong and needs to stop?” 

The first D: Direct

This is what it sounds like: you intervene directly. For instance, if someone makes a racial comment or an insensitive joke, you could say, “Come on, Alex, that wasn't appropriate and comments like that don't belong at work."

Direct intervention is the most challenging and generally feels the most unsafe for the person intervening. Remember what we stated above: take time to consider the nuances of the situation. Use this approach only when you feel it is safe and appropriate to do so.

The second D: Distract

You may have heard stories about this technique. For instance, a woman is being harassed on the subway. A witness (bystander!) notices what’s happening, and, despite being a complete stranger, rushes over and says, “Hey, Annie, so good to see you! How are you, What’s happening? Where are you headed?”

A work example might be if you see or overhear something that doesn’t sound right to you in a neighboring cubicle or office. You can make up an excuse to stop by and ask a question or request a quick meeting.

By intervening in this way, you give support to the person being harassed, and you make it much more difficult for the harasser to continue their bad behavior -- in that moment anyway.

The third D: Delegate

In situations where you feel uncomfortable intervening, even with a Distracting tactic, you can delegate remedial action by advising the target of the bullying or harassing behavior to report it to Human Resources or to another senior-level manager. You can further show your support by offering to go with them when they make their report.

And don't forget another "D" that goes with all 3 options:  Documentation

In all cases, remind the target of the bad behavior to document what happened, who was involved, the time and location it occurred, and the names of anyone who witnessed the event. Human Resources will need this documentation if and when they choose to take disciplinary action.

Bystander Intervention: The Emotionalities

Intervening in these ways is emotional labor. So please, don’t be hard on yourself if you hesitate or miss an opportunity to intervene directly or with distraction. That’s why there’s a third D for delegate.

Remember, though, that if you were being harassed or bullied, you'd want someone to support and stand up for we see in the clip below.

Bystander Intervention: The Legalities

From a legal perspective, sexual harassment prevention training is mandated by law in some states, “highly encouraged” in others, and, sadly, left unaddressed in more than a few. Anti-bullying laws are in the works in many states, but have yet to be passed into law (although California’s sexual-harassment laws include references to stopping abusive conduct). Coverage of bystander intervention compels people to respect and stand up for the rights of others and is part of the best and most forward-thinking sexual harassment and bullying prevention programs.

As you’ve seen in the clips above, Media Partners' How Was Your Day? Getting Real About Bias, Inclusion, Harassment and Bullying and Once & For All: Stopping Sexual Harassment at Work  provide the kind of memorable and instructive examples you need for training on this important topic. 

Preview these titles in their entirety to see how they teach and inspire people to be UPstanders, not bystanders.

How Was Your Day? Getting Real About Bias, Inclusion, Harassment and Bullying

Once & For All: Stopping Sexual Harassment at Work
State Versions: California | New York | Delaware | Connecticut | Illinois | Maine | Texas | Washington

We also recommend: Unintentional Still Hurts: Overcoming Unconscious Bias