Ask Alto: What is bystander intervention, how best to do it – and how to make sure it happens?

February 16, 2023 Share this article:

Ask Alto

The Hans Christian Andersen story of the emperor who parades through the streets naked, believing that he is wearing magnificent yet invisible clothes, might not seem relevant to the 21st century workplace.

But the silence of his subjects, and the truth-telling of one small child who calls out that he has no clothes on, relate directly to the health – or not – of corporates everywhere.

That’s because the story exemplifies the bystander effect: the name given to the phenomenon where people in a group fail to offer help to someone during an emergency (or simply when help is needed), even though they are witnesses to the event. The bystander effect comes into play in a corporate setting whenever someone fails to intervene in an instance of harassment or bullying, or when an inappropriate joke is told, for instance.

There’s a long history of academic research into this – but conventional wisdom is that the bigger a group of people, the less likely it is that anyone will come to the aid of someone in need. The explanations given for this are that in a group, people might feel less individual responsibility to help others, and that when in a group, people look to others to decide what is appropriate behaviour and what’s not. It’s also the case that people usually seek to avoid potentially dangerous situations. A reluctance to intervene stems from a desire to avoid harm (for instance, not wanting to upset people higher up the corporate ladder by speaking up when something bad happens).

Whatever is at play, the bystander effect is important in the workplace: if someone needs of support, will they get the help they need from their colleagues?

What does bystander intervention involve?

Bystander intervention (also known as bystander action) can take place in cases of occupational violence, workplace bullying, harassment, and discrimination. Actions can vary from interrupting an act of harassment to informally addressing an issue after it happens, or offering support to a colleague who has been wronged. Formal action can include reporting the incident, says digital education company Everfi. Bystander intervention is a critical component of allyship, when non-marginalised staff members speak out for and stand with colleagues from minority groups.

Some ways to be an upstander rather than a bystander:

  • Distract. An employee observes an interaction between two coworkers that concerns her. She approaches one of them and offers a distraction, for instance by suggesting a chat with that person about a presentation at her desk.

  • Delegate. An employee observes a colleague making what she feels is an inappropriate comment to another employee. She doesn’t feel comfortable acting alone but takes her concern to HR.

  • Delay. An employee can check in with the target of the concerning behaviour to offer support, ask if they were comfortable with what just happened. If they were uncomfortable, they can be encouraged to report the interaction to HR.

  • Direct approach. An employee observes another employee’s behaviour and thinks: “Whoa, that joke definitely felt inappropriate.” The employee can say: “Hey, let’s keep it professional.”

Why is it important?

In many workplaces, people might not act on their own behalf when they experience something negative. The Australian Human Rights Commission found in a 2012 survey that fewer than one in six respondents who reported sexual harassment had formally reported the incident – either because they were fearful that reporting would have a negative impact or they felt that the response would be inadequate.

The United States federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, says only one in four sexual harassment cases get reported – and of those reported cases, a study showed three-quarters of the reporting employees experienced some form of retaliation within the organization.

Because so few people report their experiences of sexual harassment (or other forms of abuse in the workplace), bystanders have a powerful role to play in calling out behaviour that crosses the line.

Bystander apathy – what stops people intervening?

Australian workplace conflict consultants Worklogic say that a number of workplace dynamics might decrease the likelihood of employees intervening to stop what is clearly poor or harmful behaviour. Reasons for ‘bystander apathy’ at work fall under the following three broad categories:

Ignorance: The bystander has no understanding of why the behaviour is wrong – for example, they don’t recognise the behaviour as bullying or sexual harassment. That might be due to the employee’s own unconscious biases, or the result of a toxic culture in the workplace.

Fear: The bystander fears retaliation or victimisation against themselves by the perpetrator or by management; they may lack faith in the complaint process or the likelihood of justice or change; or they may worry that they themselves will not be protected by management if they intervene.

Complicity: The bystander wants the perpetrator’s approval for advancement in the workplace, while the victim might be a subordinate and not able to advance the bystander’s interests.

In all these cases, the role of leadership is critical in making bystander intervention possible. Top executives cannot be everywhere all the time, but a workplace filled with people who feel empowered to intervene when they see something and understand it as wrong is likely to be one where diversity and equity flourish.

How leadership can encourage by bystander intervention

Daena Giardella, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan who specialises in organizational culture, implicit bias, and improvisational leadership , says that letting problematic behaviours slide allows them to become rampant. “Management needs to do more than just pay lip service when they hear about these issues – they need to consistently foster a culture of respect, openness, and psychological safety,” she says.

Most importantly, management needs to ensure that retaliation for reports of abuse has no place in their company’s culture. “Historically, many policies around sexual harassment, for example, have been designed to protect the organisation, not the people,” Giardella says. The best step to take? Adopt a zero-tolerance policy to retaliation in any form.

Worklogic recommends the following steps that leadership can take to encourage bystanders to intervene and report inappropriate behaviour:

  • Policies: Establish clear behaviour policies that state what behaviour is required, what behaviour is outlawed, what the consequences for breach are, and implement them consistently. A policy of protection of whistle-blowers is important too, as is establishing a mechanism for anonymous reporting of bad behaviour.

  • Employee training: Ensure employees know how to recognise inappropriate behaviour, and how to report it. That includes ensuring that people can recognise instances of discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment and that they understand how to intervene effectively.

  • Management training: Managers need to know to respond to a complaint, including dealing with whistle-blowers (if applicable) and how to protect the victim and bystander (whether anonymous or not).

Bystanders will only have confidence to intervene or report abuse if they have confidence that the organisation takes reports seriously and deals with them effectively and fairly, Worklogic says.

Also read: AltoPartners Guide to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: Encouraging allyship in the workplace