In 2022, the city of Chicago added bystander intervention training to its workplace training requirement. Chicago companies must provide one hour of bystander intervention training annually for their employees. Some places, including New York City, already include bystander training as a component of sexual harassment prevention training. Chicago became the first to make it a separate requirement, but there’s no reason to think it will stop at Chicago.
This action demonstrates increasing awareness of the importance of bystander intervention in the work environment. Bystander intervention occurs when someone who notices a situation of discrimination or violence steps in to challenge, de-escalate, or end the inappropriate behavior. Bystander intervention training helps participants develop an arsenal of skills to use in these instances.
Educating employees on how to become active bystanders (sometimes referred to as upstanders) also sends a message. It reinforces that the company wants a safe workplace where people can be themselves. It promotes a workplace culture of accountability. Everyone plays a part in the well-being of others and has a direct responsibility to not tolerate bad behavior.
And (as might be obvious) reducing instances of harassment, bullying, sexual misconduct, and the like benefits the company directly. The potential for costly and time-consuming legal problems goes down. Likewise, empowering employees strengthens the organization’s reputation as a good place to work. Retention rates increase, as does attractiveness to job candidates.
Bystander intervention training programs
According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s website (eeoc.gov), most bystander intervention trainings employ at least four strategies:
Create awareness — enable bystanders to recognize potentially problematic behaviors.
Create a sense of collective responsibility — motivate bystanders to step in and take action when they observe problematic behaviors.
Create a sense of empowerment — conduct skills-building exercises to provide bystanders with the skills and confidence to intervene as appropriate.
Provide resources — provide bystanders with resources they can call upon and that support their intervention.
The EEOC also notes that “bystander training affords employers an opportunity to underscore their commitment to non-retaliation by making clear that any employee who ‘steps up’ to combat harassment will be protected from negative repercussions.”
Participants learn a variety of bystander intervention strategies. This information helps dispel the notion that there is a single “right” way to be an active bystander. Rather, what a witness chooses to do depends on factors such as the situation, the relationship to the offender and/or the victim, safety concerns, and individual personality.
Many bystander intervention training programs focus on The 5 D’s:
Distract (indirectly diffusing the situation by interrupting what is happening between the offender and the victim).
Delegate (asking a third party for help in intervening).
Document (recording the incident or taking notes about the day, time, setting, and actions to help the victim down the line, especially if the person chooses to pursue legal action).
Delay (checking in with the victim at a later time).
Direct (addressing the offender and/or asking the victim if he or she needs help).
Participants benefit from not only understanding these various ways to get involved but also from thinking about “real” applications. Much of bystander intervention training focuses on discussing scenarios and thinking about possible ways to react.
Training in practice
Take, for instance, this practice example provided in the City of Chicago’s Bystander Intervention Model Training.
“One morning you walk into the office to find the new intern, Susan, sitting at her desk looking uncomfortable as the manager Bob stands behind her with his hands on her shoulders talking to her about the assignment he gave her. What do you do?”
Possibilities might include:
- Delegate: Tell Bob’s supervisor or the Human Resources manager what’s happening.
- Distract: Ask the intern, “Hey, Susan would you like to grab a cup of coffee?”
- Direct: Tell the manager, “Hey Bob, give Susan some space.”
- Delay: As soon as Bob walks away, go and ask Susan, “You looked uncomfortable, are you ok? I saw what happened. Do you need to talk to someone in Human Resources about this? I’ll go with you.”
Another thing bystander intervention training typically explores is The Bystander Effect. This occurs when the presence of other people leads an individual to shun involvement. The person reasons that he or she must be reading the situation incorrectly because others are not taking action. Or, the person absolves himself because others are around who could do something (diffusion of responsibility).
Bystander intervention training also explores the question “What is inappropriate conduct?” Things such as hate crimes and sexual assault jump out at people immediately as wrong. But how do things such as microaggressions, discriminatory behavior, and offensive humor affect the workplace culture? How does the silence of bystanders contribute to their continuation?
Options for bystander intervention training programs
A variety of possibilities exist for employers looking to provide bystander intervention training. These include live group webinars, self-directed online training programs, and in-person instructor-led courses. Factors such as budget, location, and number of employees can affect the route chosen.
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) offers a vendor directory that proves helpful in locating companies that specialize in bystander intervention training. Type in Bystander Intervention as the search term to pull up information on leaders such as Traliant, Catharsis Productions, Culture of Safety, H.A.B.I.T. Advisors, and Diversity Builder.
Another route to consider is offerings from nonprofits. Right to Be (formerly known as Hollaback!), a group dedicated to ending harassment, regularly conducts a variety of free training sessions. In addition to ones centered on the workplace, Right to Be sometimes presents on specific topics that may be relevant to your organization, such as bystander intervention to stop antisemitic harassment and how to be an ally when you witness online abuse.
Similarly, the legal and civil rights organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice started a bystander intervention initiative to help combat rising anti-Asian hate incidents and xenophobic harassment. It offers one-hour interactive training virtually and in-person with various language options.
Finally, check out bystander intervention resources provided by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC). The page presents information and links to toolkits, publications, online learning opportunities, and more.