Stand by Me: Bystander Intervention Comes to Corporate America

In the wake of the #MeToo movement and the flood of new sexual harassment laws, I wanted to take a moment and discuss one of the newest methods for fighting sexual harassment that government agencies are now ordering employers to train employees on in the workplace: Bystander Intervention.

It started at Colleges & Universities a few years ago, but now Bystander Intervention training is making its way into the big leagues. So far, two states have incorporated “Bystander Intervention” into their sexual harassment training laws.  Connecticut’s Governor’s Bill 5043 (“An Act Promoting a Fair, Civil and Harassment-free Workplace”) goes into effect October 1, 2019 and new training requirements include a section on “Bystander Intervention” (no other guidance has been provided yet by Connecticut on what this section must include).  Similarly, beginning April 1, 2019, New York City employers with 15 or more employees must provide anti-sexual harassment training to all of their New York City employees on an annual basis (Stop Harassment in NYC Act).  This includes information regarding Bystander Intervention, including resources that explain how to engage in Bystander Intervention.” 

It seems likely that other states will join them and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has already weighed in; the EEOC updated its own sexual harassment training materials in 2017 to include a component on Bystander Intervention.

 This means employers need to familiarize themselves with Bystander Intervention training so they can ensure they are not only shielding themselves from liability and meeting all legally mandated provisions, but also educating their employees on their role in not only reporting harassment, but also stopping it.

So what is Bystander Intervention?  As a bystander, where does my responsibility to “get involved” end?  What is my liability if I choose not to intervene?  Does it actually work?

What is Bystander Intervention?

Harvard University’s Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response offers this description:

A bystander is anyone who observes any situation. We all observe thousands of incidents on the daily, but usually do not acknowledge the situation as needing our response. An active bystander is someone who acknowledges a problematic situation and chooses how to respond. They must decide if they will speak up, step in, or offer assistance.

Research has found that people struggle with whether helping out is their responsibility. This concept, called diffusion of responsibility means that if several people are present, an individual is much less likely to help believing someone else will.  In other situations bystanders may fail to intervene if the situation feels ambiguous and the bystander is worried about misjudging the situation.  Fearing consequences, social stigma, embarrassment, or even a threat to safety, it can be legitimately difficult to determine how and when to intervene. In addition, most of us have not grown up in communities where people are constantly confronted on sexist, homophobic, transphobic, racist, and/or misogynistic language and behavior.

Simply put, Bystander Intervention means getting involved and possibly putting yourself at risk to aid someone who needs help.   Like the parable of the Good Samaritan, the concept is extremely simple: If someone needs help, help them.

In the context of the workplace, bystanders are employees who witness harassment.   They are not the victim of the harassment nor are they the aggressor.  Bystanders can be anyone in the workplace (co-workers, managers, supervisors, volunteers, vendors, customers).  Depending on your definition of bystander, this may also include employees who were not first-hand witnesses to an incident of harassment, but heard about the harassment later.

According to Bystander Intervention resources, these employees have a general responsibility to intervene when harassment occurs and/or report the harassment they witnessed to the proper authorities.

The University of Arizona’s Step UP! Program has been adopted by many universities and organizations.  They offer a five-step approach for bystanders who notice someone being assaulted, bullied, or harassed.

The Five Decision Making Steps:

  • Notice the Event (At what point could you notice?)
  • Interpret it as Problem/Emergency (What are the red flags?)
  • Assume Personal Responsibility (What could you do?)
  • Have the Skills to Intervene (What knowledge/skills are necessary?)
  • Implement the Help – Step UP! (What are direct and indirect ways
    to help?)

Several Bystander Intervention resources refer to “The Four D’s:”Direct, Distract, Delegate, and Delay:

  1. Direct: Step in and address the situation directly. This might look like saying, “That’s not cool. Please stop.” or “Hey, leave them alone.” This technique tends to work better when the person that you’re trying to stop is someone that knows and trusts you. It does not work well when drugs or alcohol are being used because someone’s ability to have a conversation with you about what is going on may be impaired, and they are more likely to become defensive. Get someone to help you if you see something – enlist a friend, RA, bartender, or host to help step in.
  1. Distract: Distract either person in the situation to intervene. This might look like saying, “Hey, aren’t you in my Spanish class?” or “Who wants to go get pizza?” This technique is especially useful when drugs or alcohol are being used because people under the influence are more easily distracted then those that are sober.
  1. Delegate: Find others who can help you to intervene in the situation. This might look like asking a friend to distract one person in the situation while you distract the other (“splitting” or “defensive split”), asking someone to go sit with them and talk, or going and starting a dance party right in the middle of their conversation. If you didn’t know either person in the situation, you could also ask around to see if someone else does and check in with them. See if they can go talk to their friend, text their friend to check in, or intervene.
  2. Delay: For many reasons, you may not be able to do something right in the moment. For example, if you’re feeling unsafe or if you’re unsure whether or not someone in the situation is feeling unsafe, you may just want to check in with the person. In this case, you can combine a distraction technique by asking the person to use the bathroom with you or go get a drink with you to separate them from the person that they are talking with. Then, this might look like asking them, “Are you okay?” or “How can I help you get out of this situation?” This could also look like texting the person, either in the situation or after you see them leave and asking, “Are you okay?” or “Do you need help?”

As you can see, the intervention of a bystander is not intended to escalate the situation, but rather to help the victim get away from the situation and the aggressor.

Self-interest versus the Greater Good

Sadly, the first question most people are going to ask is, “If I stop to help, what will happen to me?”

As a sexual harassment investigator, I have dealt with countless cases where victims of harassment never complained or reported the harassment because they feared retaliation.  Retaliation against victims for reporting harassment is such an ongoing problem, Federal and state laws across the U.S. have made retaliation illegal.

Bystander Intervention in the workplace relies on employees going that extra mile to see if another person (even a total stranger) needs help.  In the context of the workplace, intervening on behalf of the victim may lead to the aggressor redirecting their harassing conduct toward the intervening bystander, or later retaliating against the bystander by demoting, terminating, reassigning, or otherwise punishing the bystander for intervening.  The worst-case scenario could include physical violence, bullying, or harassment being directed at the bystander.

But worrying about retaliation is putting the cart before the horse.  First, we need the bystander to get involved.

If you have ever reviewed bullying statistics, or read the newspaper, this represents a major leap of faith. According to the American Society for the Positive Care of Children, “70.6% of young people say they have seen bullying in their schools.”

“Abusive Conduct,” the adult name for bullying is regularly witnessed by nearly 20% of American workers.  According to 2017 statistics from the Workplace Bullying Institute, “19% of Americans are bullied, another 19% witness it.”

Then there is Kitty Genovese and the bystander effect.

Does Bystander Intervention Work? Kitty Genovese & The Bystander Effect

On March 13, 1964, 28 year-old New Yorker Kitty Genovese was raped and murdered outside her apartment.  An article in the New York Times stated that 38 of Genovese’s neighbors had heard or seen the attack, but none of them responded to help Genovese, nor did any of them alert law enforcement.  Investigation into the report by the New York Times has since shown it was closer to a dozen of Genovese’s neighbors (not 38) that heard the attack and failed to intervene.

Still, the widespread indifferent reaction by Genovese’s neighbors has since been studied and codified as the “Bystander Effect” (also known as “Genovese Syndrome” after the victim) and also attributed to a phenomenon called diffusion of responsibility.

 The Bystander Effect is a social psychological phenomenon in which individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any one of them will help. Several factors contribute to the bystander effect, including ambiguity, cohesiveness, and diffusion of responsibility that reinforces mutual denial of a situation’s severity – Wikipedia

 Diffusion of Responsibility is a socio psychological phenomenon whereby a person is less likely to take responsibility for action or inaction when others are present. …The individual assumes that others either are responsible for taking action or have already done so.  Causes range from psychological effects of anonymity to differences in gender.  – Wikipedia

If diffusion of responsibility is a real phenomenon, than you had better hope that precisely one bystander is around if you are being harassed, because the likelihood of a bystander coming to your rescue decreases with every additional bystander present.


Albert Einstein once said, “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.” I agree that the idea behind Bystander Intervention training is benevolent, but it will require a great deal of social change.  In my personal experience, most people don’t even greet each other in public, they stare at their phone and mind their own business.  The same goes for the employee break room.  So from a practical perspective, Bystander Intervention training has its heart in the right place, but it also has its head in the clouds.

Only time will tell if it is truly effective at preventing and ending workplace sexual harassment.  A recent study on Bystander Intervention shows that the majority of bystanders who intervene do not intervene every time, and when they do, they tend to follow historical gender roles:

Teaching students to intervene as prosocial bystanders has become a common element of sexual assault prevention efforts; although these programs have demonstrated positive effects on participants’ beliefs and knowledge, their impact on actual behavior is weaker. Understanding the factors that inhibit intervening in risky situations may enhance the effectiveness of bystander programs by identifying material that addresses these barriers.

A majority of participants intervened in most of the situations, but only 27% of participants intervened in every situation they encountered. Men and women differed in the barriers they identified most frequently across situations, with men endorsing Perceived Responsibility more often than women, and women reporting Skill Deficits more often than men.

There also are barriers that can inhibit observers from intervening. Getting involved in a potentially dangerous interaction between other people presents some risk for the bystander. Their involvement may not be welcomed by one or more of the participants or by others who are also present, and could be met by adverse social or physical consequences. Furthermore, many potentially risky situations are ambiguous; it may not be clear if there is a threat, and if so, what the appropriate course of action would be.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, New York City and Connecticut have added requirements for Bystander Intervention as components of their sexual harassment laws, and the EEOC added Bystander Intervention to its own training materials last year.  Since this is a new concept with respect to workplace sexual harassment, there are currently no penalties for bystanders failing to intervene.  But this is likely to change in the future, if Bystander Intervention can be proven to mitigate sexual harassment at work.  So be prepared to act, your co-workers are counting on you!

Learn More: Resources on Bystander Intervention



Arizona State University:

University of Arizona:


Cal Berkeley: