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Why Do We Need to Talk About Bystander Training?

Many companies train employees on sexual harassment, but studies have shown that much of this training is ineffective and does not empower companies and employees to prevent harassment.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace issued a report in 2016 finding that some sexual harassment training even caused men to be more likely to blame both the harasser and the victim involved in a sexual harassment scenario. The EEOC’s study goes on to say that training often focused too much on legal standards and simply avoiding legal liability.

Bystander training can make a big difference, and the EEOC has recommended it as a form of training to prevent and respond to sexual harassment.

Which leads to the obvious question.

What is Bystander Training?

Bystander training is meant to help employees and others intercede when they witness a person being subjected to inappropriate behavior, typically sexual harassment or discriminatory comments. There are a number of different strategies that can be pursued to stop these interactions, help the victim exit from the situation, and call out the person that committed the violation.

Bystander training encourages employees to recognize, intervene, and show empathy in situations involving sexual harassment. The aim of this training is to raise awareness around the issue of sexual harassment and other problematic behaviors, create a sense of collective ownership of the problems in the workplace, and empower individuals to act.

Ideally, the training should be interactive and involve real situations that employees will face. Employees should be separated into small groups and asked to identify appropriate and inappropriate behaviors with guidance from the trainer.

Why is Bystander Intervention Necessary?

Some people may wonder why the victim does not speak up if they are being harassed or why someone else does not intervene.

There are a number of reasons why victims do not speak out. Some are afraid of losing their jobs. Some have difficulty deciding how to react to the situation when they find themselves the target of unwanted behavior. Others are embarrassed; there is a reason why men severely underreport sexual harassment (See this article in Psychology Today by Dr. Vitelli for more on this issue).

Bystanders face many of the same obstacles to reporting incidents and intervening in them as victims of harassment. Bystanders also face the psychological barrier that someone else will act to correct the problem and that the issue is not affecting them, so it is not their problem. These are some of the reasons why the bystander effect, where multiple people witness an emergency or wrongful situation but do not act, is such a widespread phenomenon. In fact, in many circumstances the more people that witness or are aware of inappropriate behavior, the less likely it is that any individual will act to help the victim. Companies need to help employees recognize that everyone needs to do their part to make the workplace safe and encourage people to act. The more willing people are to speak out about inappropriate behavior, the better the workplace will be for employees.

The Steps of Bystander Intervention

Bystander intervention can be broken down into five steps.

 1. Notice

What is happening that may require you to intervene? Is an employee inappropriately touching another employee? Is someone being bullied or harassed based on their sex? Is someone telling an inappropriate joke?

 2. Identify the Problem

What is the inappropriate behavior? If an employee is asking another employee out (and not for the umpteenth time), then it may not be a problem. Employees should try to notice social cues. What are the people doing in the situation? Does anyone appear uncomfortable?

3. Assume Responsibility

Uncle Ben from Spiderman said that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Nelson Mandela said, “The time is always ripe to do right.” There are numerous quotes on how people need to act to make the world a better place. And, truly, everyone has the ability to make the workplace a space where people want to work. Acting and taking a stand is uncomfortable but necessary. The only way to effect change in the workplace and improve the culture is for everyone to assume responsibility for making the workplace better.

Supervisors should be required to report instances of harassment and other inappropriate behavior and may even be disciplined for failing to report. Other employees should be encouraged to report but should not be disciplined for failing to do so.

4. Determine the Appropriate Action

Review the situation and determine how to help. Sometimes the individuals separate before you are able to intervene. Bystanders may need to speak with the perceived victim to lend support or say that what happened was not right. Other times a bystander is present when the person makes a sexual joke or inappropriate comment. These bystanders can more easily address the situation as it is unfolding.

5. Act

There are a number of different ways that people can react to resolve the problems presented.

Some of the best ways that employees can call out inappropriate behavior is through the following actions. The right action depends on the circumstances.

 a. Distract

This is a great way to stop a person from engaging in inappropriate behavior. Examples of this include spilling a drink to create a distraction, walking up to the victim and saying that you need to speak with them for a minute before removing the victim from the situation, and changing the topic of the conversation.

  b. Find Help

Sometimes incidents are not something that a bystander can respond to alone. Many bystanders benefit by finding someone that can help out in a particular circumstance. For example, inappropriate behavior may be occurring in a company email, text chain, or Slack channel. A supervisor may be able to intercede right away without the need for a bystander to intervene on their own.

c. Be Direct

Walk up and directly ask the person to stop the behavior. Ending a situation by direct engagement can be done through a variety of phrases such as “I don’t find that funny. Tell me why that is funny to you.” Other phrases may include “That crossed the line” or “that is not appropriate.” This approach works best when the bystander can reference recent training that has been done.

d. Follow-up

If a bystander cannot help immediately, then they should follow up with the perceived victim after the incident to see whether they need any help. The bystander should also report any incidents of sexual harassment in accordance with the company’s procedures.


The only way to make the workplace a safe place where people can work without fear of harassment is by acting. Acting to prevent harassment and respond to it when it occurs is a critical part of the process of improving the workplace. Everyone has a role to play in ensuring a safe and welcoming environment for all employees.

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