Becoming Upstanders to Create Positive Culture Change

In a safe and healthy workplace, employees embrace a collective responsibility to support good behavior and take action when they see harassment or abuse happen. We call this moving from being a Bystander (someone who sees something but takes no action) to an Upstander (someone who speaks up or acts).

So, how can employees take action in ways that are safe and don’t escalate the situation? Being an Upstander doesn't necessarily mean directly confronting anyone. It’s really about feeling confident setting healthy boundaries for yourself and for your teammates. Before you step into any situation, remember to always assess for potential safety issues you should consider and recognize what power dynamics are at play.

SAFE Institute trainers offer the 4 D's of being an Upstander. Let’s take a look at the options for interrupting bad behavior. Your co-worker Dave is old school and sees nothing wrong with complimenting a “pretty lady’s figure”. When he comments to Tina that she should “keep it up at the gym and the guys will be all over” her, you see Tina look at the ground, wince and stammer an uncomfortable “ummm…okay?”     


DIRECT INTERVENTION: You intervene in the moment to keep a problematic situation from happening or continuing. In this case, you could:

  • Interrupt & name the inappropriate behavior specifically: “Hey, Dave, not cool. Nobody wants to hear that their co-workers are checking them out at work.”

  • Talk to the harasser after the incident “Hey Dave, I’m guessing you were trying to encourage Tina in her new fitness kick, but what you said was really inappropriate. Did you see how uncomfortable she looked afterwards?

  • Address Tina and say “Wow, did he really just say that? Do you want some help?”


DELEGATE: to someone else who may be better suited to address the situation. In this case, you could:

  • Speak to someone else who is observing the interaction in the moment: “Sheryl, your buddy Dave is crossing the line here, can you help us?”

  • Speak to someone who has influence over Dave after the incident, like a supervisor or a friend of Dave’s: “Yvonne, I know that you are Dave’s supervisor and I’m concerned about something I overheard today.”


DISTRACT: You interrupt the situation without directly confronting the offender.

  • Approach the person doing the harassment with a completely unrelated question, and thus change the dynamic of the situation: “Wow, Dave, your lunch smells delicious. Where did you order it from?”

  • End the interaction, saying “So…I gotta get back to work. Tina, can you show me where we keep those files again?” You can then check in with Tina once you’re away from Dave.


DELAY: Not sure if the situation warrants interrupting?

  • Make it a point to check in with the target later to see if they’re okay, and validate whatever they may be feeling. “Tina, I heard what Dave said to you earlier and you looked upset by it. Those comments about your body didn’t sound OK to me either. How are you doing? I’m a good listener, if you want to talk about it. And if you want to approach Dave yourself or report it to a manager, I can be there for support if you like.”


You may opt for a combination of strategies, based on the situation. Maybe you delegate to a co-worker but also reach out to the target a bit later, to see how they’re doing. Whichever “D” you choose, remember that the goal is not to shame others as you intervene. It is to shut down harassment or abuse so everyone can get back to work safely. And it’s an opportunity to help people understand the harmful impacts of their actions and words.

If the idea of stepping in to interrupt harassing, bad behaviors still makes you nervous, remember: safe, healthy workplace cultures are those where employees are willing to have ongoing conversations about what’s OK in the workplace, and what’s not. This is a process. It’s hard. And it’s the only way to truly effect positive culture change. 

Piper Stege Nelson

Piper Stege Nelson

Piper Stege Nelson is a native of Austin, Texas. Prior to joining SAFE, she worked on Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn initiative, managing the partnerships and program stewardship. She previously served as Deputy Director of Annie’s List, a political action committee dedicated to increasing the number and success of women in politics in Texas; there she worked with the staff and board to support elected women and identify and train potential candidates. Prior to Annie’s List, Piper Stege Nelson was the Publisher of The Texas Observer, a nonprofit magazine telling the untold stories of Texas. Before that, Nelson worked for the National Democratic Institute in Washington, DC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization building democracy around the world. At NDI she served as the Senior Development Manager and worked with the women’s political participation team. There, she authored a training manual for women contesting the 2008 local elections in Sierra Leone and traveled to Freetown to train candidates, resulting in a 13% increase in the number of women elected to local office. Piper also worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; served on a number of Texas and New Mexico state political campaigns; and was legislative director for Texas State Representative Jessica Farrar. After graduating from Carleton College, she was awarded a Fulbright grant, then went on to earn her master’s degree from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. She recently served on the Austin Commission for Immigrant Affairs and on the Lee Elementary PTA Executive Board, and currently serves as the Board Chair of AIDS Services of Austin. She and her husband love being in Austin with their two kiddos and dog, Astro.