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Bystander Intervention

Adapted from Caltech's 2018 online training "Harassment and Discrimination Prevention for Supervisors" from EVERFI

Being an Active Bystander


Intervention by bystanders becomes indispensable to creating a healthy educational and work environment. Bystanders can be effective through:

  • stepping in and diffusing an escalating situation
  • reducing bullying by refusing to laugh or participate
  • notifying a faculty member, supervisor, or advisor of problems

Bystanders can support group members and reinforce positive behaviors by:

  • considering the positive effects of the action
  • identifying who may feel included or excluded as a result of the event
  • verbally praising the inclusive action or repeating it at a later time

Encouraging Bystanders

off-course-06-600x422.jpg There may be various mental blocks that prevent bystanders from acting. Being an active bystander requires several steps as found in the sexual harassment intervention decision tree and bias intervention decision tree:

  1. recognizing that something happened that is worthy of a response;
  2. feeling responsibility for responding to it;
  3. choosing how to act either in the moment or later after reflection and
  4. taking action that is appropriate for the situation.

How to intervene

It's one thing to understand why you should act, and another to do so effectively. The follow techniques are suggestions on how to address problematic behaviors or to step into a situation that looks like it might get out of hand.

Speak only for yourself. Use "I" statements that make it clear you are not judging the other person. For example, instead of saying, "You shouldn't make rape jokes," Try saying, "It makes me uncomfortable when you make rape jokes."

Appeal to friendship. "I know it's not your intention but I think your words are making people feel unsafe. Want to talk about it over coffee later?"

Distract. This can give a potential target time to get away. If you see something harassing another person, for instance, you might ask them for the time or tell them their car is being towed.

Appeal to empathy. Try to help the other person to understand how their actions would feel if they were the target. For example, "How might you feel if someone put you down because of the way you look?"

Find support. Stepping in can be easier with support. For example, if you see a fight on campus, it might be safer to call campus security.

Try using humor, if you feel comfortable in doing so. Humor can cut tension in a rough situation, but it's important that you don't trivialize the bad behavior or mock your own reactions to it.

Stare. If you can't verbally step in, make sure that the offender knows that you are a witness to their behavior. A long stare might be all that is necessary to stop something bad from happening.

Caltech Admissions 2012

Responsible Employees

Prof. Melany Hunt (MCE) with a student Credit: Martin Springborg Responsible employees, including faculty members, supervisors, coaches, residential life coordinates and resident associates, may also be bystanders. Even if a group member does not complain about an instance of misconduct, if you are aware of the situation, you must respond to it. Furthermore, group members may not always tell you that they are making a complaint. Someone may hesitate to complain out of embarrassment, fear that they will not be believed, or an expectation that their report won't be taken seriously.

You need to respond even if a complaint is only implied, such as when a group member says the following:

  • "I don't have a problem but..."
  • "I don't want you to do anything but..."
  • "Suppose this happens at work to somebody..."

You cannot ignore a potential harassment problem. So, if you suspect there is a problem, follow up on your suspicions.