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Bystander Intervention Can Disrupt the Flow of Bad Behavior

A group of people wearing face masks in an office.

​You are standing around the office copier, and a co-worker shares a sexist joke. A member of the hiring committee wonders aloud if an older job candidate has the stamina for a full workday. A co-worker directs a racial slur at a colleague.

You are a bystander to this behavior. What do you do?  

Career strategist Errol Olton led HR and equal employment opportunity professionals through these scenarios as part of a recent five-day virtual event promoting race equity in the workplace that was hosted by New York City's Department of Citywide Administrative Services.

It can be hard to summon up the courage to intervene, especially in a work environment. There may be a fear that speaking up will jeopardize an upcoming promotion, or the person exhibiting the poor behavior may be a boss or someone else high in the workplace hierarchy. The bystander may be afraid of not being seen as a team player if he or she speaks up.

[SHRM members-only resource: Workplace Harassment Resources]  

Adopting a "mind your own business" (MYOB) mindset is tempting, Olton said, but silence signals acceptance. Bystanders, he added, "have an ethical responsibility to step in, when they can, to preserve peace and promote equity," whether it's at work or elsewhere. 

If there is a "work rhythm" to the culture that allows caustic remarks, it is up to the bystander to disrupt that rhythm. It's not uncommon for people hearing an offensive comment to look around at nearby people who could be offended—the employee who is female, has a disability, is an older worker, or is from a racial, ethnic or other minority group—to gauge their reaction. If no objections are raised, those who are part of the conversation may think such language is OK, while the person who is the target of the comment or action may be afraid to speak up.

"Each and every one of us can disrupt the flow" of problematic behavior, Olton said. "Make sure the workplace is safe, rather than putting the onus on what could be the offended party."

He shared the following steps to intervention:

  1. Notice the event.
  2. Interpret the situation as a problem.
  3. Assume personal responsibility.
  4. Know how to help.
  5. Step up and take action.

Maria Figuieredo is a recruitment specialist at SBS in New York City. Prior to her current job, she was an HR generalist at another organization.

"It definitely taught me a bit on how to handle these scenarios," she told SHRM Online following Olton's session.

"HR has to evaluate the situation, approach the employee who told the [offensive] joke, check in on those around that employee, speak to the manager and provide training in case [the employee] never got that education," she said in an online chat during the session. "Change the pattern [of behavior] by providing education, information, policy, support and guidance." 

Bystander action can take a variety of forms.

One session attendee recalled an incident where she witnessed a supervisor yelling at an employee. The bystander was a close friend of the supervisor and later spoke with him privately. She pointed out how his actions hurt the employee; she said she never witnessed him acting that way again at work.

Olton pointed to the people of New York City who, after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, embraced a new way of thinking and behaving. MYOB was no longer acceptable, he said. "We were reporting suspicious packages, we were reporting suspicious behavior, and we were saving lives." 

Other SHRM resources:
Tips for Discussing Racial Injustice in the Workplace, SHRM Online, June 2020 
Overcoming Workplace Bias, SHRM Resource Hub Page
Nondiscrimination/Anti-Harassment Policy and Complaint Procedure, SHRM members-only policy
Viewpoint: Workplace Harassment Is an Epidemic, and It's Time to Treat It That Way, SHRM Online, January 2019 


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