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The role of bystanders and bystander training

Last edited: July 08, 2020

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Expanding training and awareness-raising to bystanders supports prevention of violence and harassment at work.

Bystander approaches are mainly used as a form of violence prevention in university and college campuses and are increasingly recognized as contributing to an effective strategy to raise awareness and to change the culture (Labhardt et al, 2017, pp. 13-25). Bystander training has the potential to empower workers to intervene with peers to prevent violence and harassment from occurring. In this way, training builds workers’ skills to be “active” bystanders, to recognize violence and harassment, and to understand when it is appropriate to intervene (EEOC, 2016, p. 57). This is particularly important because survey evidence shows that workplace sexual harassment incidents are regularly witnessed by colleagues and that, in the majority of cases, they do not intervene (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2018, p. 9).

Such training can help workers in challenging and changing informal practices and cultures, for example, in identifying ways to respond to violence and harassment in non-confrontational ways (Powell, Sandy and Findling, 2015). As the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found, “Bystander training could teach co-workers how to recognize potentially problematic behaviours; motivate and empower employees to step in and take action; teach employees skills to intervene appropriately; and give them resources to support their intervention” (EEOC, 2016, p. 58).

Bystanders, including bystander colleagues, who witness violence and harassment should be encouraged and supported to take the initiative, including, if appropriate, to approach the perpetrator sensitively. Being proactive may be the first step to break down isolation and help the victim to enforce her rights (for example, to make a complaint or leave an abusive partner).

Promising practices show that if a worker approaches a co-worker about a difficult experience, it is important to validate their experience and to talk to them sensitively, to help them to find a strategy to tackle the problem.  For many victims, violence and harassment is a traumatic and distressing experience that can cause a loss of confidence.  Many also feel shame and guilt. For this reason, it is important to show empathy when supporting and talking to victims.

Bystander intervention initiatives

“Take A Stand Against Domestic Violence” training programme, Victoria Health, Australia (Cited in Powell et al, 2015)[1]

“Take A Stand Against Domestic Violence” is a targeted workplace training program on domestic violence, designed around three elements: “to lead, to train and to promote”. Based on an active bystander model, it tackles the identification of comments, practices or actions in the workplace relating to violence. The program can be tailored to the requirements of the organization. In addition, the program encourages organizational engagement with the White Ribbon Campaign, a global movement to end violence against women.

Bystander intervention: #WhoWillYouHelp - Ontario government[2]

The Ontario government has issued a video advertisement, #WhoWillYouHelp, urging bystanders to intervene when they witness sexual violence and harassment. In the advertisement, the viewer is the bystander. One vignette shows a woman working at her office computer, while a man gives her an unwelcome shoulder massage. The man looks into the camera and says, “Thanks for minding your own business”, followed by the message “When you do nothing, you’re helping him; but when you do something, you help her”.

The video advertisement is part of the Ontario government’s “It’s Never Okay” action plan to stop sexual violence and harassment, which encourages a sense of collective responsibility and collective action, including by bystanders.  A similar example is the (Toronto) Mount Sinai Hospital “Are You an ALLY?” campaign, which includes tools on how to support victims of discrimination or harassment, and how to help end it.

Green Dot in Anchorage, Alaska[3]

Green Dot is a violence prevention program established by an NGO in the state of Virginia, in the United States that helps bystanders to develop strategies and techniques to: (1) identify situations that can lead to acts of violence ; and (2) intervene safely and effectively. The program is based on mapping of relevant actions, indicating with red dots those acts amounting to violence and harassment and, with green dots, “any behaviour, choice, word, or attitude that promotes safety…and communicates utter intolerance for violence.” The goal is to reach a predominance of green dots.

The City of Anchorage, in the State of Alaska has run the Green Dot program at the community level, including at bars and restaurants where examples were shared of violent or potentially-violent behaviours against staff. As a result of the Green Dot training, bar and restaurant owners in Anchorage began to change the culture, hosted trainings, developed policies and engaged in a host of creative ideas, such as Green Dot trivia contests, and competitions. Both staff and patrons acquired new skills to respond to potential harassment and violence.

“Make it Our Business” Domestic Violence Workplace Education Program, Canada

The “Make It Our Business” Domestic Violence Workplace Education Program allows organizations of all sizes to develop skills and knowledge and build confidence to address domestic violence. Using a participatory methodology, the program teaches supervisors and co-workers how to intervene and support someone experiencing domestic violence.

“1. RECOGNIZE: All workers should be able to recognize warning signs and risk factors of domestic violence

2. RESPOND: All workers should be aware of their legal responsibilities and know how to respond safely

3. REFER: All workers should be aware of available services and supports inside the organization and in the community

4. REPORT: All workers should be aware of formal and informal reporting procedures”[4]

Forum Theatre for Bystanders

Forum Theatre is a participatory theatre method used to discuss the sensitive issue of violence against women in the workplace. Promoted at several midwestern universities in the United States, the “Forum Theatre for Bystanders”, is a community-based approach that increases bystander responsibility and reduces victim blaming (Mitchell and Freitag, 2011, pp. 990 – 1013).

United Steelworkers Bystanders Program in British Columbia, Canada

The United Steelworkers Union has introduced the programme “Be More Than a Bystander - Break the Silence on Violence Against Women”. This is a groundbreaking initiative established between the Ending Violence Association of British Columbia and the British Columbia Lions Football Team. The programme, consisting of training and awareness-raising, aims to heighten awareness and understanding about the impact of men’s violence against women. Since 2011, over 100,000 people have participated in training in British Columbia about how they can speak up and break the silence on violence against women. The United Steelworkers Union has participated in three-day intensive train-the-trainer courses, enabling the training to filter through the union. through locals and workplaces. The training aims to give an in-depth understanding of the bystander intervention model, including:

  • Why these are men’s issues;
  • What role socialized masculinity plays towards violence in society;
  • What is sexism and misogyny;
  • The pressure to be tough and not empathetic;
  • Media literacy and understanding the role of media in establishing and maintaining social norms;
  • The power of men stepping in and speaking up;
  • The role of bystander intervention as a men’s leadership issue;
  • Know what options there are to speak up/interrupt abuse and violence; with people they know and with strangers.

Empathic talking to a woman who has experienced violence and harassment

The UN Women Online training programme for public servants in Georgia[5] contains the following guidelines on communicating with women victims of violence and harassment:

  • Don’t judge or blame the person, let them tell you about what has happened in their own time.
  • Allow them to be in control. Ask how you can help and allow them to make their own decisions. Help them find useful information, but don’t insist on them doing anything or speaking to anyone they don't want to. 
  • Avoid ask them about the details of what happened if they are not ready to talk about it. You could suggest that they write it down as this is one way to express what has happened.
  • If the victim has experienced physical sexual harassment, it is important to be respectful of the fact that they may be uncomfortable with being touched.
  • Be supportive. Acknowledge what they are going through, be prepared to give support in the future.
  • If the person is in immediate danger or there is a risk of further sexual harassment, it will be important to propose a ‘safety plan’ with practical steps so that they protect themselves.

[1] See also: Women’s Health Victoria (2017) Take A Stand Against Domestic Violence. It’s Everyone’s Business (brochure)

[3] See Green Dot, Alaska:

[4] A full description of each of these elements is available in the booklet: Recognize and respond to domestic violence in your workplace: