Organizations that successfully create an inclusive and positive culture understand that all of its people have an important role to play in maintaining a harassment-free workplace. Any incident of harassment can affect more than just the parties directly involved, and all employees are responsible for helping to maintain a working environment that is free from harassment, discrimination, and other inappropriate conduct.

Ensuring that employees understand their role as bystanders to potential incidents is vital to creating a safe and inclusive culture, and in some jurisdictions, providing such training is mandatory.

This post will explain what it means to be a “bystander” and review three key reasons why bystander intervention training can help your organization prevent workplace harassment

What Is a Bystander?

Whenever a potentially inappropriate interaction between two individuals occurs, any third party who either directly witnesses the behavior or learns of it later becomes a “bystander”—that is, not a target or an offender, but a witness, whether direct or indirect. For example, someone who overhears inappropriately gratuitous commentary directed at a co-worker in an adjoining office could be a direct witness. An indirect witness might be a colleague in whom someone who is feeling harassed confides that they are feeling uncomfortable with a co-worker’s remarks or actions.

Disrupting the Behavior

In many cases, bystanders are in a unique position to identify and address potential incidents of harassment because they may have a more objective perspective on the conduct than the involved parties. Moreover, bystanders can intervene in the moment to disrupt inappropriate behavior or language. Calling out such conduct in real time can communicate to all those involved that the behavior is inappropriate. Bystanders can immediately stop the harm, and they can even help avoid further escalation of the situation.

But direct confrontation is not the only way bystanders can intervene—and, sometimes, it is not the safest. That is why bystander intervention training teaches employees a variety of methods to disrupt and de-escalate a situation. Something as small as innocuously getting between the parties in the moment can stop the behavior immediately. Following up with the target after the incident or bringing in a third party can also help identify potential incidents of harassment so that they can be addressed.

Creating a Culture of Accountability

Bystander intervention can help create a culture of accountability throughout the workplace. By taking action when they witness inappropriate behavior, bystanders can help establish that harassment is not tolerated and reinforce your organization’s anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies. Importantly, bystander intervention strategically leverages community members as change agents who can make their surroundings safe for everyone, not just during an incident but in its aftermath.

Of course, in addition to disrupting any untoward behavior when it occurs, bystanders should follow up by reporting potential incidents of harassment to management, human resources, or others, as outlined by company policy. This helps ensure that the conduct is properly investigated, documented, and addressed. In some cases, reporting the incident may be the only safe and effective way to protect the target and prevent further harm.

After all, what use is your anti-harassment training if people turn a blind eye when they actually see potential incidents of harassment taking place? The knowledge that bystanders will take action when they see inappropriate behavior occur is a powerful tool to prevent harassment from occurring in the first place.

Educating Others

When effective anti-harassment measures are in place, such that the workplace feels safe, employees are more likely to help educate others about the importance of preventing harassment. They will actively share information about what constitutes harassment, how to recognize it, and how to respond. This ensures that your anti-harassment policies and training continue to be discussed and put into practice and, of course, plays a key role in preventing workplace harassment from happening. Even for something as small as telling a colleague to be careful how they greet others, an open dialogue about what can be considered harassment is a great way to create a safe and inclusive workplace.


It is critical to note that bystanders must be trained to act properly when they encounter harassment and effectively be able to identify actions or statements that constitute harassment. This all starts with an effective anti-harassment training program that includes bystander intervention tools.

Halting Harassment: Rules of the Road for a Respectful and Inclusive Workplace by Epstein Becker Green is a comprehensive, compliant, and compelling anti-harassment training designed for every layer of your organization. Schedule a free demo today to learn more!

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