The Ontario government video ad, #WhoWillYouHelp, which urges bystanders to intervene when witnessing sexual violence and harassment, has gone viral. The powerful ad depicts four disturbing vignettes of sexual harassment or violence where the viewer is essentially the bystander. One vignette shows a woman working at her office computer while a man gives her an unwelcomed shoulder massage. The man looks into the camera and says, “Thanks for minding your own business”. Another vignette shows a teenage boy showing sexually suggestive photographs of a girl to his friends, and whispering to the camera, “Thanks for not telling my girlfriend”.  The ad leaves you with an uncomfortable feeling of being complicit. The message that follows is, “When you do nothing, you’re helping him”, and “But when you do something, you help her”.

The Ontario government’s ‘It’s Never Okay’ action plan to stop sexual violence and harassment aims to be bold, activist and forward-looking, and to encourage a sense of collective responsibility and collective action. Bystanders have an important role to play in this vision. It is telling that the action plan includes introducing requirements relating to sexual harassment into the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Health and safety focuses on the importance of the cooperation and involvement of all workers to achieve health and safety through the Internal Responsibility System, which includes training employees to observe the safety-related work practices of others.

Who are bystanders?

In the context of the workplace, bystanders are individuals who observe violence and harassment in the workplace firsthand. Depending on how inclusive a definition one chooses to adopt, bystanders can also include those who are subsequently informed of the incident. Accordingly, bystanders can include a range of people, including co-workers, managers or supervisors, human resources and union representatives, and other individuals to whom violence and harassment are reported. Co-workers who are informed of violence and harassment through the workplace grapevine can also become bystanders.

The growing trend of bystander approaches

Bystander approaches’ focus on the ways in which individuals who are not the targets of the conduct can intervene in violence, harassment or other anti-social behaviour in order to prevent and reduce harm to others. Bystander approaches aim to encourage individuals to act less as “passive” bystanders (those who take no action), and more as “active” bystanders (those who take action to prevent or reduce the harm).

The concept of bystander approaches in the workplace is a relatively new concept; however, bystander approaches are gaining ground as an effective strategy to raise awareness of violence and harassment, and help change cultures of tolerance towards workplace violence and harassment. Research from the Australian Human Rights Commission shows that bystanders were more likely than targets to take action against sexual harassment.

Bystander approaches have historically been used in emergency situations, but have increasingly become part of the efforts to prevent injustices, such as interpersonal violencecyberbullying and race discrimination. For example, the Australian Human Rights Commission incorporated bystander approaches into initiatives aimed at empowering young people to take safe steps to respond to cyberbullying. The (Toronto) Mount Sinai Hospital’s “Are You an ALLY?” campaign incorporated the spirit of bystander approaches into comprehensive educational tools that aim to help the health care industry better understand the perspectives and experiences of members of marginalized groups. The campaign provides tools on how to support someone who is experiencing discrimination or harassment, and how to interrupt discrimination or harassment when it occurs.

Bystanders are often unsure of themselves as responders, and are unclear about whether intervention is needed or welcome and what they should do to help. Furthermore, in order for bystanders to feel supported in highlighting violence and harassment in the workplace, there must be a workplace culture that supports reporting. Some key factors that discourage bystanders from taking action are a lack of knowledge of workplace rights and reporting avenues, fear of “making an issue out of nothing”, a fear of the potential impacts of reporting on the bystander’s career, and low expectations that reporting will lead to change.

Bystander intervention training

Bystander intervention training builds the skills needed to behave as “active” rather than “passive” bystanders by teaching employees to:

  • Recognize workplace violence and harassment and the wide range of behaviours which sustain violence and harassment;
  • Challenge myths about workplace violence and harassment;
  • Address links between sexual violence and harassment and other forms of gender inequalities;
  • Place greater emphasis on the behaviour of the alleged perpetrator, rather than the way the target reacted, when deciding whether violence or harassment has occurred;
  • Assume a sense of individual and collective responsibility for violence and harassment in the workplace, thereby providing the motivation to step in;
  • Develop confidence in the ability to help;
  • Address different forms of bystander involvement, including interrupting incidents of workplace violence and harassment or the situations which lead to violence and harassment, challenging perpetrators and potential perpetrators, and providing support to potential and actual targets;
  • Maintain bystander safety;
  • Understand the various channels to report workplace violence and harassment and provide support to potential and actual targets; and
  • Speak out against the social norms and inequalities that support workplace violence and harassment.

Widespread bystander training in the workplace is an important way to influence attitudinal change. Training should therefore be mandatory, and be delivered to all employees across all levels. Training strategies that promote the idea of a collective team where employees “look out for one another” can increase the potential for “active” bystander behaviour.

Employers should not underestimate the impact that workplace violence and harassment have on bystanders as well as targets. The phenomenon known as “bystander stress” can lead to higher turnover and absenteeism, as well as harm to workplace morale and corporate reputation. Employers who are committed to creating a comprehensive framework of workplace violence and harassment prevention should seriously consider bystander intervention training as an important element of this framework.