From Bystander to Upstander: Stopping Harassment Safely

Editor’s note: As we prepared to post this blog, we (like most of the country) were watching the events unfold in Washington, DC as protestors swarmed the Capitol. Though this article focuses on harassment at work, we are reminded by the events in DC that we all have a collective responsibility to create the non-violent world we want to live in. 

In thriving workplaces, employees themselves – at every level - co-create a healthy company culture. Rather than relying on HR alone to fix problems that come up, employees embrace a collective responsibility to support good behavior and take action when they see harassment 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).

Too often, ‘bystanders’ feel pressured to go along with harassing behavior such as teasing, off-color jokes, and sharing inappropriate memes. Those bystanders might fear that if they say something, their co-workers will consider them ‘lame’ or worse, ostracize and target them. These fears, as well as the ‘bystander effect’ means perpetrators of harassment and abuse keep getting away with it.


And our workplaces remain unsafe.


Consider this instead: with the proper support from leadership, any employee can use their power – their relationships and influence - to interrupt and potentially stop harassment in its tracks.

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 safety - are there any potential safety issues you should consider (for yourself or others) when choosing how to intervene?
  • Recognize power dynamics - what power dynamics are at play and where do you fit into those dynamics?

SAFE Institute trainers offer the 4D’s of being an Upstander. Let’s take a look at the first two 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?”     

office joke

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?”
  • 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.

DELEGATE: to someone else who may be better suited to address the situation. If you’re uncomfortable or feel unsafe addressing this person directly, could you ask someone you trust to do so, perhaps someone who is closer to that person and would likely be willing to talk to them? 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” or “Jacob, you and Dave hang out after work. Could you say something to him? He’s crossing the line and I have a feeling HR is about to get involved.”

Whatever option you choose, remember that the goal is not to shame or harass others as you intervene. It is to reiterate the company’s values and policies and shut down harassment so everyone can get back to work safely.

See our next blog post for the final two D’s of being an Upstander and keeping your workplace safe and respectful!

Sandra Molinari

Sandra Molinari

As our lead BASE Training Expert, Sandra works collaboratively with a diverse team of trainers to help our clients foster safe, respectful, inclusive workplace cultures. A longtime SAFE staff member, Sandra has worked both directly with survivors of abuse and led community education and engagement projects designed to promote awareness and prevention of interpersonal violence. In her 19 years of experience in training and program management, she has designed and led hundreds of empowerment workshops, as well as culturally-responsive skills trainings for professionals in the United States and Latin America. Sandra is an avid world traveler, amateur salsa & Cha-Cha dancer, and unapologetic gourmand. She is bi-cultural (French/American), trilingual, and is currently learning Catalan.