We are all bystanders to everyday events. At times these events might make us feel uncomfortable - we might witness discrimination, harassment or bullying. Being an active bystander means being aware of when someone’s behaviour is inappropriate or threatening and choosing to challenge it. When we intervene, we signal to the perpetrator and any observers that their actions are unacceptable. If such messages are constantly reinforced within our communities, we can shift the boundaries of what is considered acceptable behaviour.
Here we have collated resources that provide introductory overviews of bystandership, as well as offering multiple intervention options for different contexts.
The resources were developed by Anna Bull and Katy Prince (The 1752 Group) in support of initiatives at the Society to foster more inclusive and safer professional spaces. These resources are intended to complement expert-led training. We strongly encourage everyone to take part in such training as well as reading these resources carefully to develop the knowledge, skills and confidence needed to be an active and effective bystander.
We know the resources below repeat a number of the same points, but we think that is important. Each is framed in a slightly different way. The resources are intended to help you know what to do if these things happen and how to support fellow students and colleagues safely and appropriately.
The Society’s code of conduct provides some examples of unacceptable behaviours, as well as procedures that we as an organisation follow.
For further information, we also encourage you to look at the
Resource 1: Becoming an active bystander
University of Leeds
A useful, bitesized overview of options for active bystanders in multiple settings.
When to be an active bystander: what are unacceptable behaviours?
Unacceptable behaviour may be overt and direct, subtle and more hidden, can be individual incidents or ongoing behaviour. It may be related to a protected characteristic such as age, disability, race, sex, gender identity or sexual orientation. Multiple incidents of seemingly minor ‘micro-aggressions’ can have a significant impact on an individual’s confidence and ability to work or study productively.
Reasons for not intervening
Some reasons people do not intervene include:
Thinking ‘No-one else is doing anything so I shouldn’t either’
Assuming that ‘someone else’ will intervene
Thinking ‘I don’t know the person it’s happening to – don’t get involved’
Being concerned about other people negatively appraising their intervention
Fear of retaliation: e.g. physical harm, or others’ reactions, at the time or afterward
Incorrectly believing their views are in a minority ‘nobody else thinks this behaviour is wrong, they aren’t saying anything’
Being an active bystander requires a person to challenge these thoughts and concerns and make a decision to intervene in some way. This is not always easy, especially in situations where there is a hierarchy. To challenge this, be clear in your own mind about what are bad behaviours – don’t make excuses for the person or otherwise enable them.
How to be an active bystander
There are four main stages to the process of being an active bystander:
Stage 1: Notice the event/behaviour.
This is about being informed about what is inappropriate and noting the behaviour to oneself.
Stage 2: Interpret it as a problem.
Don’t presume that the problem has been solved or underestimate its importance even if the person who is the target doesn’t say anything.
Stage 3: Feel empowered to take responsibility for dealing with it.
Realise that it’s your responsibility to be active in some way. Do not assume that someone else will intervene, or that because you are not causing the problem, it is not your responsibility to be part of the solution.
Stage 4: Possess the necessary skills to act.
This can involve having had training or information on how to intervene. This is what the rest of this document is about.
Deciding to intervene: now or later?
There is a choice to be made on whether to intervene during the incident and/or after the incident, and in direct or indirect ways:
At the time
Call out negative behaviour: tell the person to stop, say ‘that’s not OK’ or ‘I don’t like that’.
Distract: interrupt the person, change the subject, start a conversation, create a diversion. Applies in a situation you think might become problematic.
Only intervene if it is safe to do so. Ask yourself: are you physically and psychologically safe? Is the person being harassed physically safe? Does it seem unlikely that the situation will escalate? Direct intervention is only the correct response if you can answer yes to all these questions.
After the incident
Ask someone else to step in, inform a manager or senior colleague or report through the appropriate channels afterwards.
Create bystander allies if others witnessed the incident, reflect and consider a joint plan for a) now, or b) in the future.
Strategies for intervening
There are a number of recognised strategies that can help:
1. Use ‘I’ Statements:
Change the focus to yourself: 1) State your feelings, 2) Name the behaviour, 3) State how you want the person to respond. This avoids criticising the other person, for example:
“I don’t like racist jokes. Please don’t make them anymore.”
“I didn’t like what you said about those women. Don’t say that anymore.”
“I don’t want you to make personal comments about my body. I’m here to support your learning.”
2. Silent stare/body language:
You don’t have to speak to communicate. Sometimes a disapproving look or not smiling at a ‘joke’ can be far more powerful than words.
3. Use social norms:
Identify that this is not usual or accepted behaviour, for example
“Most people I know don’t think it’s OK to….” or “People just don’t say that kind of thing anymore…”
4. Group intervention:
There is safety and power in numbers.
Best used with someone who has a clear pattern of inappropriate behaviour where many examples can be presented as evidence of their problem, either to them or a senior colleague/staff member.
5. Bring it home:
Engage empathy with the person behaving inappropriately, for example
“I hope no one ever talks about you like that” or “How would you feel if someone did that to you/your sister/your daughter?” or “I wonder if you realise how that comes across?”
6. Call on friendship:
Reframe the intervention as caring, for example
“As your friend, I’ve got to tell you that lots of people don’t like your jokes about XYZ; it annoys them” or “I know that you would not want to offend someone but using that word is not great’.
Snap someone out of their “comfort zone”. For example, ask a person being harassed in the street for directions or the time.
Resource 2: Racism and inappropriate behaviours - five actions for allies
Business in the Community
Actions for allies on racism and harassment in the workplace, from Business in the Community, but equally applicable to other types of harassment.
1. Do not wait or assume that others will intervene – take responsibility. Diffusion of responsibility and bystander apathy is very real. Just because other people may witness the event does not mean that they will intervene or report it. Take responsibility to step up and intervene directly or indirectly.
2. Check it is safe to intervene - assess the situation before deciding to directly respond, use this assessment to determine your actions: Are you physically and psychologically safe? Is the person being harassed physically safe? Does it seem unlikely that the situation will escalate? Direct intervention is only the correct response if you can answer yes to all these questions.
3. Be confident, clear and not rude when intervening directly. Use general statements such as “that’s inappropriate, disrespectful, not okay, etc.” or “this makes me feel uncomfortable” when speaking up and ask the person who is being harassed how they feel. Be short and succinct, and try not to engage in dialogue, debate, or an argument with the harasser as this risks the situation escalating. If the instigator responds, try your best to assist the person who was on the receiving end of the negative behaviour instead of engaging with the harasser.
4. Indirect intervention works too! Take an indirect approach to de-escalate the situation by creating a distraction, asking a question or starting a conversation with one of the people involved (“do you know where this meeting room is?” or “have you got a moment to chat about something?”) This draws attention away from the event and may help to diffuse the situation.
5. Don’t be a lone wolf – get help from others if necessary. Speak to someone near you who notices what is happening and might be in a better position to intervene and work together. Better yet, find someone in a position of authority, like a conference organiser, HR or a senior manager, and ask them for help. If this is not possible, use your best judgement on how the individual might want you to intervene.
Support after an incident. After an occurrence of racist or inappropriate behaviour has taken place, the best thing you can do to support the person affected is to record the incident (i.e. in a live document, or by sending emails to yourself). This can be done in the moment if someone else is helping out, or after the fact if you chose to intervene. Do not forget to add the time, date and location and always ask the person who was on the receiving end of the negative behaviour what they want to do with the record. Never share it online or use it without their permission.
Make a point to communicate with the individual afterwards to let them know what you witnessed and ask how best you can support them. Keep your attention on the individual who has been affected and make sure everything you do is focused on helping them. Signpost them to resources and possible next steps and offer to help them make a report if they want to. Tell them that you have documented the incident and ask them if they would like you to share it. Be sure to engage with the individual a few days later to check if they’re OK, and don’t forget to allow yourself the time and space to reflect on what you have witnessed and seek support for yourself if you feel you need it.
Resource 3: Call It Out! Be an Active Bystander
University of East Anglia
The link below is a great overview of active bystandership, including an illustration of how to respond to Islamophobia. It is also applicable to other types of harassment. It is particularly helpful for visual learners.
How to become an active bystander
Being an active bystander involves paying attention to your surroundings, noticing when somebody’s behaviour is problematic, or threatening. An active bystander takes action by choosing to step in and intervene in such situations.
Findings show that that bystander intervention can be effective at preventing assault from happening. By taking strategic action, you can help prevent sexual, racial or homophobic harassment.
Simple steps to becoming an active bystander:
Notice the situation
Interpret it as a problem
Feel responsible to act
Think about intersectionality - different people are vulnerable in different situations
Possess necessary skills to act - the 5Ds of bystander intervention
Always remember, it is important that you only intervene if it is safe for you to do so.
How you can intervene safely:
Tell another person - being with others is a good idea when a situation could be unsafe.
Ask the victim if he/she is okay before getting further involved - provide options and a listening ear.
Ask the person if he/she wants to leave with you - make sure that he/she gets home safely.
The 5Ds of bystander intervention
Distraction | Direct Action | Delegation | Delay | Document
To be an active bystander use the 5D approach to help you get involved, make a quick plan on how to approach the situation, and make a measured decision on what you are going to do. Bystander intervention does not have to be direct or loud.
Interrupt the behaviour of the harasser.
Distraction can often be more than enough to handle an awkward moment or de-escalate a situation by redirecting the situation. It can be very effective to change the outcome of the situation without getting yourself directly involved.
How to do it…
Engage directly with the person who is being targeted and talk to them, ask them something or just get in the way. Ignore the harasser and don’t talk about or refer to the harassment happening. Instead, here are some examples of what you can do.
Ask for the time or directions
Talk to the victim about something completely unrelated. Ask directions, start a conversation, or pretend you know them.
Pretend you know the person being harassed and talk to them to the take attention off of the harasser.
Get in the way. Continue what you were doing, but get between the harasser and the target.
Make a commotion. Accidentally-on-purpose spill your coffee or the change in your wallet.
Check out this comic strip showing how a bystander can intervene when witnessing Islamophobic harassment.
What to do if you are witnessing Islamophobic harassment
Name what is happening and condemn the harasser’s actions.
If you choose to take direct action, assess your safety and the situation first, then if safe, speak up and confront the harassment and/or harasser. This tactic can be risky, as the harasser may redirect their abuse towards you or it could escalate the situation.
How to do it…
First, before you decide to respond directly, assess the situation.
Are you physically safe?
Is the person being harassed physically safe?
Does it seem unlikely that the situation will escalate?
Can you tell if the person being harassed wants someone to speak up?
Is there anyone else who can join you to intervene?
Next you need to take action and speak to the person who is doing the harassing.
Keep it short and concise.
State what is happening.
Condemn what they are doing.
Do not be aggressive or threatening, but stay calm and in control.
Address the behaviour not the labelling of the harasser. For example say "what you said is racist" or "that is racism," not "you are a racist")
Do not engage in dialogue, debate, or an argument, this is how situations escalate.
Here are some examples you can say to the harasser.
“That’s inappropriate, disrespectful, not okay, not cool, etc.”
“Leave them alone.”
“That’s sexual harassment, racist, homophobic (insert type of harassment), etc.”
"That's is too far" or "you went too far"... "that is racist, a hate crime, sexual assault/harassment (insert behaviour), etc."
Then finally, turn your attention towards the person being targeted. If the harasser responds to what you said, do not engage with them, just turn your attention to the person who was targeted.
Get them somewhere safe and away from the situation and away from the harasser.
Ask if they are OK and if you can do anything to help.
You can offer to help if they want to report it now or later, or if they what you to call the police.
Offer any practical support you can give such as ordering a taxi, walking them to where they were going or to a safe place, call someone for them, etc.
* A note about safety: Direct intervention can be risky, so use this one with caution. We do not ever want you to put yourself in danger or get hurt trying to help someone out. Always think about safety and consider options that are safe.
Get assistance to intervene.
Find someone else who can help. It can be that simple to make a positive impact. Especially when you do not feel you are able to get more directly involved.
How to do it…
Find someone in the position of authority such as the manager, security guard, bar tender, staff member, bus driver, or a transit employee and ask them to intervene.
On campus contact campus security, the nearest staff member, or go to the front desk of a university building.
Get your friend to help you. Have them use one of the methods of Distraction to communicate with the person being harassed while you find someone to delegate to.
Speak to someone else you who notices what’s happening and who might be in a better position to intervene.
Call 999 if it is safe and it is an emergency (or 101 if it is not an emergency) to get the police.
IMPORTANT Before contacting 999, use Distract to check with the person being targeted to make sure they want the police involved. Some people may not be comfortable or feel safe to get the police involved.
Follow up and support the person being targeted after the incident.
If you can’t do anything while the situation is happening, you can still make a difference by checking in on the person who has been harassed. Whether the incident happened quickly or took time to finish, sometimes you cannot do the other 3 Ds, but you can still actively use the Delayed tactic.
How to do it…
Ask them if they’re ok and tell them you’re sorry that happened to them.
Ask them if there’s any way you can support them.
Offer to accompany them to their destination or sit with them for awhile.
Share resources with them and offer to help them make a report if they want to.
If you’ve taken pictures or a video, ask them if they want you to send it to them.
In an emergency, call the police on 999. And remember, never put yourself in danger. Only intervene if safe to do so.
Record the incident and give it to the person being harassed.
First asses the situation. Is someone helping the person being harassed? If not try to use one of the other 5Ds. If someone is helping, assess if it is safe to record. Think about your safety and the safety of those involved in the situation.
Always ask the person who was harassed what they want you to do with the recording. NEVER POST IT ONLINE without their permission.
Resource 4: The Intervention Initiative
University of Exeter
The Intervention Initiative Training – all of the resources for this are available online.
Below is a sample, alongside a handout which is also included.
Whatever response you choose, remember the following:
Consider frequency, duration and intensity/severity when evaluating a situation.
Determine the barrier for the person if possible — motivation, ability or environment.
Know your limits as a helper — engage others as necessary.
Be sensitive, understanding and non-judgmental.
Challenge misperceptions – express your true feelings/beliefs.
Identify the red flags; anticipate problems.
Determine the priority goal; formulate a plan; prepare/practice what you want to say.
Interrupt/distract/delay a situation you think might be problematic — before it becomes an emergency!
Set boundaries — do not make excuses for the person or otherwise enable them.
Conduct conversations in a safe environment. Maintain mutual respect and mutual purpose.
Remember the Law of Delivery — Who (person/s), What (content), When (timing), Where (location/privacy), Why (reasons) and How (tone).
Intervention Initiative – Some Bystander Intervention Strategies
Resource 5: Active Bystander – How to intervene
This resource starts from the premise that it’s normal to freeze or panic in a difficult situation. They then highlight the 4Ds – Direct Action; Distraction; Delegation; Delay. With elaborations and advice on each in order to help clear thinking and a measured decision on what to do.
Resource 6: Breaking the silence
This resource focuses on recognising when someone is in danger and how you can intervene safely. Safely intervening could mean anything from a disapproving look, interrupting or distracting someone, not laughing at a sexist or a violent joke, talking to a friend about their behaviour in a non-confrontational way to caring for a friend who’s experienced problematic behaviour. Other times, it means asking friends, staff, or the police for help. The framework is A,B, C.
Assess for safety: If you see someone in trouble, ask yourself if you can help safely in any way. Remember, your personal safety is a priority – never put yourself at risk.
Be in a group: It’s safer to call out behaviour or intervene in a group. If this is not an option, report it to others who can act.
Care for the victim. Talk to the person who you think may need help. Ask them if they are OK.
The adopting the 4 Ds – Direct Action; Distraction; Delegation; Delay.
Online resource 1: Alan Berkowitz (US-based videos)
Resources from Alan Berkowitz – expert in bystander intervention with a particular focus on higher education. While his work has mostly taken place in the US, there are plenty of videos on bystander action generally, as well as specific scenarios that provide tools for intervention, including specific language examples, engaging people in ways that reduces the risk of a defensive response, and how to de-escalate a negative response.
Online resource 2: A bystander experiment in London
When there are a number of people present, or when people are in groups, they are less likely to intervene or help someone because they believe someone else will do it, or the lack of intervention by others signals they ‘shouldn’t get involved’ – it’s called diffusion of responsibility. This is a fairly old film of a bystander experiment conducted at a station in London, but the bystander effect has been evidenced in multiple studies – people feel less responsibility to act when there are others around. However, when just one person is proactive, many more quickly jump on board.
Online resource 3: Respect Victoria campaign
Small actions can make a big difference – see this example from the Respect Victoria campaign in Australia.
Online resource 4: Sexual assault and bystander intervention
This is a video showing the lead up to a sexual assault, highlighting the many different friends, strangers and professionals, who could have intervened and what they could have done to change the situation. It’s powerful because it’s dealing with more subtle behaviours which could easily be dismissed or overlooked. If you use it, be sure to include a content/trigger warning.
Online resource 5: What would you do?
There are multiple videos available where actors have staged incidents of abuse or harassment to which real world members of the public responded in both direct and indirect ways, providing examples of bystander action.
Man harasses waitress in a diner and other customers step in - WATCH VIDEO
Manager harasses bartender and customers become active bystanders - WATCH VIDEO
Online resource 6: Our Watch Australia
Here’s a link to a whole host of resources from Our Watch and there ‘Do something. Because doing nothing does harm’ campaign.
The Active Bystander Training Company - Challenging antisocial behaviour at work, on campus and in school.
The 1752 Group - The 1752 Group is a UK-based research, consultancy and campaign organisation dedicated to ending staff sexual misconduct in higher education.
Recent published articles: