Here’s something most of us know, and the research backs up: Small actions make a big difference, especially when it comes to preventing sexual harassment and assault. If we see something that doesn’t feel right, we can act. This is bystander intervention: stepping in to reinforce our community values and prevent harm when we see something that looks like disrespect or pressure. Many of us already do this, like when we disrupt a conversation that seems uncomfortable or speak up when people make hurtful comments.
Often, when we think about sexual misconduct and bystander intervention, we’re thinking about intervening in social situations, such as on the dance floor, at a party, or in a relationship. But what happens when you see this happening at your internship or workplace?
While we might know that it’s equally important to take action in the workplace, we might not exactly know how to do it, especially if we’re dealing with uneven power dynamics—like a boss who’s making crude comments to an employee or an established colleague taking advantage of a new intern. The good news? The basics, which you already know, work here too.
“The skills and strategies that work in social contexts can often be applied to other settings, including professional contexts such as a summer internship or other job,” says Laura Santacrose, assistant director of the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives at Cornell University in New York, who developed Cornell’s “Intervene” project, a bystander intervention initiative for students. The knowledge and confidence that we’ve gained from intervening in other contexts make a difference. Knowing we have the skills to step in makes us more likely to do so, according to a 2014 study of college students in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.
Besides reinforcing your own personal values, you’re also setting the bar high for the rest of the organization. And that’s important. “Employers hope to create an environment that is welcoming and inclusive for all employees. A safe and inclusive environment fosters teamwork among colleagues, greater workplace satisfaction, and higher levels of innovation and creativity on the job. Employees who are able to facilitate such an environment are highly valued by both their employers and by their clients,” says Jeanine Dames, director of the Office of Career Strategy at Yale University in Connecticut.
So how do you do it?
Before you start, consider risk
Whenever we intervene, it’s critical to consider the potential risks involved and to make a safe plan. The power dynamics between supervisors and employees may make it difficult to intervene directly, so consider subtle or indirect actions. “There may be additional supports in a professional setting that will make an intervention easier [than in a social situation], including support from a human resources department,” says Santacrose.
Start here: Stepping in on the job
- Overhear a sexist comment about the new hire’s cleavage? See a colleague’s uncomfortable face when he interacts with his overly handsy boss? Pay attention to the patterns.
- Ask yourself: How might this situation impact the individuals involved? The department or team? The broader community of the organization or company?
- Trust your instincts. It’s OK to decide to do something even if you aren’t sure there’s a problem.
- Remember that “doing something” might be shooting a quick email to human resources (HR) or chatting briefly with your coworkers to see if they’re noticing it too. Ask your fellow employees or supervisors what they’re seeing or how they might deal with the situation. HR representatives may be particularly helpful. It’s their job to make sure that the workplace is safe and respectful, so they want to know when something seems off.
- There are usually multiple ways to intervene. Play to your strengths. Not sure what those are? Take our bystander quiz here to learn more about your stepping-in style. Remember that interventions don’t have to be dramatic to be effective.
- Pay attention to power dynamics. If you are worried about the consequences of intervening, consider confidentially reporting the problem to HR.
- After you’ve intervened, follow up with the person being targeted or your colleagues.
- Think about what the organization could do to make positive outcomes more likely in the future. What structural changes would help? Can you review company policies and suggest updates? Are there employee training options that can help set community standards? Make suggestions and be willing to help put them into place if it’s an option.
How would you respond?
Now that you know the basics, or at least can refer back to them, let’s get into some examples. Use the following scenarios to think about possible intervention strategies. What strategies would you choose?
Scenario 1: Inappropriate jokes
Imagine that you share an office space with several other summer interns. One of the interns, Taylor, often makes sexual jokes and suggestive comments. You and the other interns find the jokes annoying, but one of the interns, Sam, looks upset and starts to avoid the space.
- Taylor is distracting everyone from work.
- Sam might worry that others think Taylor’s jokes are OK.
- Sam’s job performance could suffer.
- Other interns’ job performance could suffer.
- Taylor might continue this behavior in other workplaces, which could continue to hurt people—and damage Taylor’s job prospects.
- Don’t laugh at the jokes. An awkward silence can speak volumes.
- Privately check in with Taylor. “You probably mean well, but those jokes make you seem unprofessional.”
- Privately check in with Sam. “You seemed a little bit uncomfortable with Taylor’s jokes. Are you OK?”
- Talk to a supervisor. Suggest that supervisors discuss appropriate workplace conduct with new interns now and in the future.
- Consider structural changes that can prevent this problem from happening again. Proactively start positive, professional conversations in the shared workspace. This sets a good example and minimizes chances for inappropriate conversations to begin.
- Student story: “I politely interrupted the situation by asking a work-related question to cause a distraction and interruption. Then I privately talked to my co-worker at a later time.”
—Rebecca B., fourth-year student, Rochester Community and Technical College, Minnesota
Scenario 2: Unfair treatment
Imagine that you have a part-time campus job in a lab. The professor in charge of the lab chooses a graduate student, Riley, to lead a project. A few weeks ago, Riley asked one of your coworkers, Casey, out on a date. Casey said no. Since then, Riley seems to be treating Casey differently from the other lab members. Riley often dismisses Casey’s comments in meetings and assigns all the menial jobs to Casey.
- The professor might think that Casey is not a good employee.
- The rest of the lab members are missing out on Casey’s contributions.
- Other lab members might feel like they must always agree with Riley or face retaliation.
- Riley is behaving unprofessionally, which could hurt Riley’s future job prospects.
- Validate Casey’s contributions. If Riley dismisses one of Casey’s comments, say, “I actually thought that was a really good point.” Similarly, volunteer to do the menial jobs yourself.
- Check in with Casey. Tell Casey that you’ve noticed the problem and are available to help. Providing emotional support after an incident of harassment is the most common kind of workplace bystander intervention, according to a 2016 study in the International Journal of Human Resources Management.
- Express your concerns with the professor supervising the lab.
- Consider reaching out to an official such as a Title IX coordinator or HR representative.
- Propose structural changes to ensure everyone’s voices are heard and menial jobs are fairly distributed. For example, you could suggest that everyone takes turns performing the less-desirable tasks using a chart that’s visible in the lab.
- Student story: “I told my manager right away. The manager handled it from there.”
—Kassandra J., first-year graduate student, Texas Woman’s University
Scenario 3: Callouts on appearance
Imagine that you have a part-time job. Your supervisor makes small talk with employees as you arrive in the morning. Topics range from sports to the weather, but on several occasions, your supervisor has made comments about the appearance of one employee, Kai, such as, “You look gorgeous today!” and “That shirt looks great on you!” Your supervisor does not comment on other employees’ appearances.
- This behavior creates a workplace that emphasizes people’s appearance, perhaps implying that their looks matter more than their ideas.
- Kai may feel uncomfortable at work and worry about what the manager expects.
- Other employees might worry that they will be treated differently based on appearance too.
- Check in with Kai and express concern about the comments.
- Subtly steer conversations back to appropriate topics.
- Speak to another employee and ask for advice.
- Talk to an HR representative. They may be able to take action without revealing your identity.
See? Your bystander skills just went pro. When you break it down like this, intervening becomes a little easier, which means your workplace can be just as supportive of a community as your college is. So remember: Your bystander skills can work in any context, at any time.
Want more bystander info? Check out Cornell University’s bystander initiative, “Intervene.” This interactive training, useful for students of all kinds, offers concrete strategies for intervening in a wide range of social, academic, and professional settings.
Jeanine Dames, JD, director of office of career strategy, Yale University, Connecticut.
Laura Santacrose, MPH, assistant director, Skorton Center for Health Initiatives, Cornell University, New York.
Banyard, V. L. (2011). Who will help prevent sexual violence: Creating an ecological model of bystander intervention. Psychology of Violence, 1(3), 216–229.
Banyard, V. L., Plante, E. G., & Moynihan, M. M. (2004). Bystander education: Bringing a broader community perspective to sexual violence prevention. Journal of Community Psychology, 32(1), 61–79.
Bennett, S., Banyard, V. L., & Garnhart, L. (2014). To act or not to act, that is the question? Barriers and facilitators of bystander intervention. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 29(3), 476–496.
Bowes-Sperry, L., & O’Leary-Kelly, A. M. (2005). To act or not to act: The dilemma faced by sexual harassment observers. Academy of Management Review, 30(2), 288–306.
Carmody, M. (2005). Ethical erotics: Reconceptualizing anti-rape education. Sexualities, 8(4), 465–480.
Garcia, S. M., Weaver, K., Moskowitz, G. B., & Darley, J. M. (2002). Crowded minds: The implicit bystander effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(4), 843–853.
McDonald, P., Charlesworth, S., & Graham, T. (2016). Action or inaction: Bystander intervention in workplace sexual harassment. International Journal of Human Resource Management, 27(5), 548–566.
McMahon, S., & Banyard, V. L. (2012). When can I help? A conceptual framework for the prevention of sexual violence through bystander intervention. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 13(1), 3–14.
Rayner, C., & Bowes-Sperry, L. (2008, June). Mobilizing bystanders to intervene in workplace bullying. In The 6th International Conference on Workplace Bullying.