The Need for ‘Active Bystanders’

Adam Hamel Headshot
Adam M. Hamel
Director, Litigation Department and Vice Chair, Employment Practice Group
Published: New Hampshire Business Review
November 19, 2021

They can be a company’s best defense against workplace harassment and discrimination.

It is an unfortunate fact that acts of harassment and discrimination occur in workplaces every day.  Sometimes the acts are extreme, but often, harassing and discriminatory behaviors are more subtle (sometimes referred as “microaggressions”), and the cumulative effect of these small acts is to create a hostile work environment for employees affected by the conduct.  When people witness these behaviors in the workplace, they often do not do anything to stop the conduct, especially if they are not the “victim.”  However, bystanders have the power to intervene and stop harassing behaviors.  When employees exercise this power, they are helping to promote a positive culture in the workplace, and they are protecting their company from potential liability.

Business owners and managers have a responsibility to put a stop to harassment and discrimination when they see it.  But many rank-and-file employees do not want to get involved when they see harassment in the workplace.  Maybe they think that they are overreacting or misinterpreting what they have seen.  Some people choose not to act because they fear that they may become a target themselves or may be retaliated against.  Other times, employees who witness harassment may feel powerless because they may think that they do not have the power to intervene, or that it is someone else’s responsibility to act.  Even when an employee wants to help, they simply may not know what they can do to stop harassing or discriminatory behavior

Every employee in an organization should know that they have the power to intervene when they see harassment in the workplace, and that they owe it to their co-workers, themselves, and their employer to use that power.  There are several tools and tactics that employees can use to be an “active bystander” and combat harassment and discrimination when they witness it.

Hollaback!, an organization founded about fifteen years ago to combat gender-based harassment in public spaces, has developed a set of five strategies, called the “5Ds”, that bystanders can use to disrupt and stop harassing and discriminatory behavior they witness.  These tactics which were created as tools for people to intervene when they encounter harassment in their daily lives, for example witnessing someone being subject to cat calling on the sidewalk, or hearing racial slurs being used on public transportation.  However, these strategies can be used by employees to help stop harassment in their workplaces.

The first of these strategies is Direct action.  Company leaders should clearly and consistently articulate that harassment and discrimination have no place in the organization, and that employees are empowered to speak out against it.  When employees know that they have this power, they can directly address offensive behavior when they see it if they are comfortable doing so, and feel that it is safe in the particular situation.  For example, an employee could say something like, “Jokes like that aren’t funny, and it’s not appropriate to tell them at work.”

A more subtle, but still effective approach is to Distract from the harassing conduct.  Rather than specifically calling out the harassing behavior, an employee can stop it by disrupting it and re-directing what is happening.  The employee can steer the conversation in a different direction by bringing up a new topic or asking a question.  Or, they can make up a reason to remove the victim from the situation, such as asking for assistance with some task elsewhere in the office.

When it isn’t safe to get involved, or if it is not clear that the conduct is actually harassing, an employee may choose to temporarily Delay taking action.  Afterwards, the witness can talk to the victim an offer support and empathy, and ask if they need assistance, by saying something like, “I heard what was being said earlier, and I didn’t think that it was appropriate.  I wanted to check if you are OK and to let you know that you can talk to me about it.”

Non-managerial employees may find it best to Delegate the intervention.  Employees should know that they can tell a supervisor or human resources about the conduct they have observed, and that appropriate action will be taken.

Lastly, employees can Document what they have observed.  This step goes hand in hand with delegation.  Employees should be trained to share what they observe with management or human resources so company leadership can be aware of the situation and take appropriate action.

Business owners and managers should incorporate active bystander training into their anti-harassment strategy.  Front-line workers are often in the best position to see harassing and discriminatory behavior, and when employees know that they are empowered to take steps to stop it, and when they are provided with the tools and strategies to implement, they can become a company’s best defense against harassment and discrimination.