Take Action: Five Strategies for Effective Bystander Intervention

by Vol. 48 No. 7 2021
Stopping harassment in the workplace takes consistent intervention and support from colleagues when they see coworkers being mistreated. Leah Pusateri of Hollaback! walks through the five most important ways to effectively intervene when harassment occurs.

Leah Pusateri,
Training Manager,

It is a basic human instinct to take care of others when something bad happens. While taking action when we see a stranger drop a dollar bill or leave their cell phone behind is easy enough, we often freeze when the time comes to support someone who is being harassed. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and many other forms of prejudice can happen right in front of our eyes, even in our workplaces or amongst the teammates we work with every day. So often, we don’t respond and that is commonly because we do not know what to do.

At Hollaback!, we are on a mission to eliminate harassment in all of its forms. This is a global movement powered by every person who moves from being an inactive bystander to a bystander in action. In 2005, our organization began to collect and map stories of street harassment, providing those who experienced harassment a community for support and, in sharing their stories, recognition that they are not alone.

There is a reoccurring theme in the approximately 18,000 stories that have been submitted since: Someone who is experiencing harassment feels less alone and more supported when someone around them intervenes in some way. In research Hollaback! did alongside Cornell University, it was proven that even a knowing glance from a stranger could lessen the trauma experienced by a person being harassed.

With this knowledge in hand, training became central to our work, as Hollaback! helps to provide bystander intervention tools so participants can act instead of freeze. And with every moment of intervention, our culture begins to shift from one where harassment is commonplace to one where harassment has no place.

Workplace Harassment: Why is it so Common?

A workplace, whether virtual or in-person, is the space where so many of us spend the majority of our time. The people we work and interact with regularly or report to are some of the key players in our daily lives. Unfortunately, harassment and disrespect occur in these environments just as commonly as in any other in our lives, if not more so. In fact, so much about our working environments can create a breeding ground for some of the common reasons harassment happens.

We can likely agree that when we have been disrespectful in the past, we were not being our best selves. In fact, when asked during a number of Hollaback!’s training sessions if they could recall a time in the past when they did/said something disrespectful to someone, a vast majority participants said yes. So why is it that workplace environments are one of the arenas in which harassment so commonly occurs?

For starters, stress. High stress situations do not create the types of dynamics in which most are able to be thoughtful about what they communicate or how they communicate. Our brains on stress do not do well, and often there is an underlying factor of conflict in our work environments. Miscommunication is another common cause of harassment and disrespect, alongside not knowing or being insensitive to a colleague’s identity, boundaries or personal story.

Bias, whether implicit or explicit, can also be a motivating factor behind instances of workplace harassment. Bias is prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person or group compared with another, usually in a way that is considered to be unfair. Bias can be based on many factors. In fact, any element of one’s identity (race, ethnicity, sexuality, etc.) can be the foundation of someone else’s bias. Those unique parts of who we are, or even who we are assumed to be, can be weaponized by someone else and lead to an instance of harassment.

Whether the bias is explicit, clear and easy to recognize or implicit and more nuanced instances of microaggressions, the effects are often the same on those who are harassed and their work life. Mental health can suffer via anxiety, depression and/or PTSD, and since the lines between our emotional health and our physical well-being are very thin, long-term health complications such as high blood pressure, insomnia or abuse of drugs/alcohol can develop as well.

The 5 D’s of Bystander Intervention

While many of us want to ensure none of these harmful effects occur, we may still have very legitimate concerns about stepping in when we see harassment. The goal of our bystander intervention methodology, Hollaback!’s 5 D’s of Bystander Intervention, is to provide tools to use so we can honor those concerns and still find a way to support others. Our methodology is meant to be a simple and easy to remember set of actions you can take to intervene when harassment occurs.

So, just what are the 5 D’s? Simply put: distract, delegate, document, delay and direct. These are not necessarily meant to be done in an “order” and each action doesn’t necessarily have to be done every time. So let’s take a moment to learn a bit more about how to practice each method.

Distract: Take an indirect approach to de-escalate the situation. We can do this by starting a conversation with the person experiencing the disrespectful behavior, or finding another creative way to draw attention away from them — a coffee spill or interruption of the moment for a random question. After the incident is over, ask if the person being disrespected is okay.

Delegate: Get help from someone else. People often think this means going to a manager or human resources, but it could simply mean going to another person on your team or in your organization. When we delegate, we report what we are observing or have observed and ask simply, “Can you help me stop this?” Delegating also helps us get more eyes on a situation and can often aid in more action being taken.

Document: Capture the important details of a situation and provide them to the person being harassed so they can decide what steps they want to take. In workplace environments, documenting is almost always done by writing down the details of what we witnessed and, in public spaces, people often think of recording video and/or audio. The most important things to remember about documenting is you always want the documentation to go to the person being harassed and you should always make sure something else is happening to tend to the person.

Delay: This happens after the incident is over, perhaps because the situation happened too quickly or because we didn’t act. When we practice delay, we are checking in with the person who experienced disrespectful behavior asking what they need to feel supported. Saying “I saw what happened and I am here to help” can be a powerful means of supporting someone who has been harassed. Anyone can practice delay, which is another indirect form of intervention.

Direct: Speak up about the disrespectful behavior when it is happening. This is the last of the five D’s and the form of intervention of which most of us think. When we practice direct intervention, we set a clear boundary and name a behavior as inappropriate. We can also ask a clarifying question to reflect back to the harasser what they have said or done that caused harm. The point of direct intervention isn’t to start an argument with the harasser but to name the behavior, set the boundary and then focus on the person being harassed to ensure they have what they need to feel supported.

Let’s consider an all-too-common workplace scenario: Jesse, a leader who facilitated an in-person meeting, is seeking ideas for a roadblock in a new project development. Dawn, the only woman of color on the team, suggests a solution and no one responds. Later on in the meeting, Daniel, who is white and a man, suggests a similar solution to Dawn’s and Jesse says his idea is excellent.

How could a bystander intervene in a situation like this? They could distract, raising a hand and adding, “I’m so glad we revisited Dawn’s idea from earlier…” or they could delay, sending Dawn a direct message after the meeting and asking if she’d like them to intervene on her behalf. Or maybe a direct intervention would be best: “You know, Jesse, I think Dawn’s idea earlier was similar and just as impactful.”

This is just one example of the many that can take place in work environments in which harassment or disrespect occur. No matter the cause of the harm, it is our hope at Hollaback! that at least one of the intervention methods recommended in our methodology will help people support others by challenging and changing harmful behaviors in their workplaces.

Leah Pusateri (she/her) is a highly skilled facilitator, curriculum creator and thought partner with more than15 years of experience working in sexuality, social justice and anti-racism education. Pusateri is motivated everyday by those she works alongside of at Hollaback!

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