From Bystander to Upstander: Stopping Harassment Safely - Part 2


In our last blog, we explained that healthy workplace cultures are those where employees at all levels are committed to supporting good behaviors, calling out problematic ones and modeling respectful interactions. They refuse to be simple bystanders and instead show up for their co-workers as Upstanders. We gave examples of the first two Ds of being an Upstander: being DIRECT and DELEGATING. Let’s explore two more tools here: DISTRACTING and DELAYING.

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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?”



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?” (You can always check in with Tina later - see Delay below).  Address Dave later about his behavior. (See Direct in the previous blog)
  • Ask the person targeted a question that will remove them from the situation or at least change the tone of the conversation: “Hey Tina, I just remembered a deadline I have this afternoon and really would love you to take a look at some numbers for me on this report. Do you have a minute?”

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 a manager, I can be there for support if you like.”

And of course, before selecting which of the 4Ds to use to interrupt problematic behaviors and support those targeted, it’s important to always assess your options for safety and to recognize power dynamics and where you fit into them. It is, in fact, this question of power that drives home why we need more Upstanders in our organizations. Teresa Fitzsimmons, director of workplace dynamics at Lausanne Business Solutions, explains that "sexual harassment, while sexual, is less about sex and more about power. Sexual harassment is a signal of an individual having a lack of respect for another."


Workplace harassment doesn't happen in a vacuum, but within the context of a broader societal culture that values some people and their experiences over those of others.


Employees  may leverage the relative power status of their seniority or rank, but also of their gender, race, ethnicity, age, immigration status, ability, or a combination of these factors. Too often, people misuse such power, leading to workplace harassment, bullying and other forms of abuse, such as daily micro aggressions: the everyday verbal and nonverbal slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to people based solely upon their marginalized group membership. Sexual harassment tends to go hand in hand with other kinds of discrimination, so...


...being an Upstander means interrupting micro aggressions and outright verbal abuse towards anyone who’s targeted based on their (perceived or real) identities or lack of power.


For example, when Jesse minimizes Alyssa’s hurt feelings about an uncomfortable interaction with a male colleague by saying, “Come on, you’re a strong woman, you can handle it. Where’s that fiery anger??” an Upstander can be direct: “Jesse, are you suggesting  Alyssa doesn’t deserve our support and validation because she’s a strong Black woman? That’s a stereotype and it’s not helpful. Alyssa, do you want to talk about this more? I’m here for you, now or later.” It’s particularly important for people who hold more privilege in a given area to be Upstanders, so as not to place the burden on people who are already experiencing harm regularly in their lives. In this case, it would be good for a white employee to step in to address Jesse.


What if YOU are the person who has caused someone else to feel harassed or upset? 


It can happen to anyone. Nobody’s perfect. Be sure to LISTEN and accept the feedback. You don’t have to understand why someone was hurt, offended or felt unsafe as a result of your actions or words.  Sometimes our actions have unintended impacts. Apologize, course correct, and move on.

Safe, inclusive, respectful workplace cultures are those where employees at all levels are willing to have ongoing conversations about what’s OK in the workplace, and what’s not. We cannot make real culture change with discrete moments of action or interruption. This is a process. It’s hard. And it’s the only way to truly effect change. 

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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.