Making the Case for Bystander Training

Mar 14, 2018 8:29:49 AM

An Essential Component of Sexual Harassment Prevention Training

Recently, workplace sexual harassment prevention training programs have made the case for including “bystander” intervention training. Historically, bystander intervention training has been used in elementary and middle schools to address bullying, and on college campuses and in the military in an effort to prevent sexual assault.

Who are “bystanders”, and what role do they play in harassment prevention?

In the context of the workplace, “bystanders” are defined as individuals who observe harassment of others in the workplace, while “targets” are the individuals who directly experience the harassing behavior. Bystanders can include a range of people, including co-workers, managers or supervisors, human resources and union representatives, and other individuals to whom harassment is reported. Co-workers who are informed of violence and harassment through the workplace grapevine can also become bystanders. 

The behavior may be serious or minor, one-time or repeated, but the bystander recognizes that the behavior is inappropriate, intimidating, offensive, a violation of policy or even physically threatening.


Bystander approaches focus on the ways in which individuals who are not the targets of the conduct 

can intervene in harassment or other inappropriate behaviors in order to prevent and reduce harm to others.

What is an “active” vs. a “passive” bystander?

The primary goal of these approaches is to encourage individuals to act less as “passive” bystanders (those who take no action), and more as “active” bystanders (those who take action to prevent or reduce the harm). Research suggests that an “active bystander” who takes such steps can make a difference in these types of situations, potentially thwarting and even preventing future harassing behaviors.

Click here to download Harassment Prevention Policy Checklist

So, what would bystander training look like in a corporate business environment?

Bystander intervention training builds the skills needed to be “active” rather than “passive” bystanders by teaching participants to:

  • Recognize workplace sexual harassment
  • Place greater emphasis on the behavior of the alleged perpetrator, rather than the way the target reacted, when deciding whether violence or harassment has occurred
  • Assume a sense of individual and collective responsibility for preventing harassment in the workplace
  • Be confident in their ability to speak up
  • Maintain bystander safety
  • Understand where to report problematic behaviors
  • Provide support to potential and actual targets
  • Address different forms of bystander involvement, including
    • Interrupting situations which may lead to violence and/or harassment
    • Interrupting incidents of workplace violence and harassment
    • Challenging perpetrators and potential perpetrators

What should an “active” bystander do and say?

Essentially, bystander training participants would be provided with real life scenarios to help them practice how they might safely speak up in a situation where they may be witnessing harassing or offensive behavior against someone else. As an integrated component of a sexual harassment prevention strategy offered by the organization, this would include case studies and role play exercises in which employees could practice safe and appropriate ways of intervening to prevent the continuation and/or escalation of the harassing behavior. Training would also need to be tailored to the industry and specific work environment to be maximally effective. 

For example, options for bystander intervention can include:

  • Making comments such as, “hey, that joke wasn’t funny”
  • Disrupting the situation by doing something like loudly dropping a book, or
  • Asking the victim to come to the conference room, or
  • Talking to the harasser later, by asking questions such as: “Were you aware of how that comment came across?”

Bystander intervention can also include talking openly about inappropriate behavior, like asking coworkers: “Did you notice that? Am I the only one that was uncomfortable in this situation?”

Employers should not underestimate the impact that harassment has on bystanders as well as targets. Bystander training as a component of sexual harassment prevention efforts empowers everyone in the workplace to be an active participant in the response to sexual harassment, and to contribute to a culture where the expectation is that all are treated with respect. 

Employers who are committed to creating a comprehensive framework of harassment prevention are encouraged to seriously consider requiring bystander intervention as an important element of their comprehensive sexual harassment prevention training.

  Download Now! Harassment Prevention  Policy Checklist

Co-Written by Elizabeth Roche, SPHR, SHRM-SCP and Suzanne Hoffman, Ph.D.