Bystander Actions Can Make a Difference

Hide Featured Image
true

We’ve all been onlookers to awkward or unsettling situations. As apathetic bystanders, we witness an event of interest or concern but do not take action. However, if we choose to intervene as bystanders - especially when observing acts of racism or marginalization in the workplace - we can help improve organizational culture. 

It’s not uncommon to be a passive bystander in difficult workplace situations. We may ‘shut down’ in disbelief, try to assume ignorance or even positive intent in the perpetrator, or over-evaluate the offender’s right to speak their mind. It’s normal to be shocked and unaware of what to do when we witness marginalizing acts at work. However, your effort to speak up as an active bystander can actually disrupt an egregious situation. 

Specific to anti-racism, bystander actions can include interrupting racist statements by speaking up, calling out racist behavior as upsetting, and/or seeking to support the targeted person or people. If you are a bystander to interactions that feel offensive, it’s safe to assume that others may find the situation to be objectionable as well. Speaking up or intervening sends a message that you desire a workplace that is free of harassment and protected for all. Here are some strategies to try in response to difficult statements:

  • Understand that statements or jokes that are explained as having no negative intent still do create impact. Address the statement or joke even if you feel that the sender is ‘harmless’, ‘ignorant’, or otherwise did not intend to offend. 
  • Always use a de-escalating tone when actively engaging as a bystander in the workplace. You’ll do more by seeking to calm intense reactions than by hurling insults to the person who is creating offense.
  • If someone makes a joke that is offensive, lewd, and/or demeaning to a cultural or racial group, disrupt that interaction by stating, “that feels offensive to me … I’m guessing it’s offensive to others as well.” 
  • If someone makes a statement using a derogatory epithet or racial slur, publicly call it out as offensive and ask the person not to use that description or language. 
  • If someone’s behavior is overtly offensive and others are speechless, upset, or are becoming distressed, end the interaction or meeting and reach out to those who may be in distress. It’s better to assume distress and have someone correct you than to not acknowledge distress and have someone suffer in silence feeling a lack of support. 
  • If it seems counterproductive or even dangerous to address the offender’s behavior publicly, find a time - close to the occurrence of the statement or interaction - to address the offender in private. Talk with the person who was targeted to determine next steps in reporting. Understand that many feel unsafe in reporting threatening behaviors perpetrated by someone of a dominant race or gender.  
  • Identify strategies for reducing the occurrence of offensive statements or interactions in the future. Refer to our State Anti-Harassment and Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion universal policies for guidance and encourage adherence to workplace behavioral expectations in meetings and work-related interactions. 

Submitted by Janeen Haller-Abernethy, Director, Colorado State Employee Assistance Program

For more information and ideas, visit - 

How to call out racial injustice at work. 

Don’t just be a bystander.

We are all bystanders. 

How to confront microaggressions as a target, bystander, or perpetrator.  

Speak Up! Bigotry Handbook