Becoming an active bystander

Contents

Introduction

Every day events unfold around us and we are all bystanders. At times events around us might make us feel uncomfortable, we might witness discrimination, harassment or bullying. When this happens, we can choose to say or do something, be an active bystander, or to simply let it go and remain a passive bystander. 

When we intervene, we signal to the perpetrator and any observers that their actions are unacceptable, and if such messages are constantly reinforced within our communities, we can shift the boundaries of what is considered acceptable behaviour. 

Intervention might be as simple as choosing not to laugh at a ‘joke’ that is racist or undermines someone, challenging a Facebook post or offering support to friends after an incident you witness. 

This information is to help you know what to do if these things happen and when to support fellow students and colleagues safely and appropriately. 

When to be an active bystander: what are unacceptable behaviours? 

  • Inappropriate or aggressive language and actions, raising voices, swearing in a professional environment  
  • Disrespectful or derogatory remarks, spreading rumours – in person or online
  • Joining in online harassment of a fellow colleague, student or other person
  • Rude, mean, inconsiderate behaviour
  • Violation of ethical standards
  • Singling out or overlooking individuals
  • Sighing, rolling eyes, or disrespectful body language

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’. 

To be an active bystander therefore needs 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. However, be clear 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/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.
Realising that it’s your responsibility to be active in some way. Not presuming, 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

Direct

  • 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.

Indirect

  • Ask the target of the behaviour if they are OK or if they need help.

After the incident

Direct

  • 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. 

Indirect

  • Check in with the person being harassed/bullied afterwards. Even if they say they are fine, recognise the situation wasn’t OK and offer support if they want it.

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

“Alex, 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’.

7. Distract: Snap someone out of their “comfort zone”, for example, ask a person being harassed in the street for directions or the time.

Remember: the Golden Rule is only intervene if it is safe to do so

  • Know your limits as an active bystander and engage others as necessary or if you do not feel confident about doing it alone. 
  • Conduct conversations in a safe environment for you/the person you are speaking to. 
  • Know in advance how to report concerns – and who to report to (see below). 

Further online Active Bystander training is available via the Office for Students website. You will need to create an account, but this is immediate, and the training is free.  

Reporting concerns or incidents

We take any reports of harassment or discrimination very seriously. Reports of hate crime, sexual assault and online harassment can be made anonymously, and through the Dignity and Mutual Respect Policy. Further details are available on our webpages.  

References

This information is taken from Fenton, R. A., Mott, H. L., McCartan, K. and Rumney, P. (2014). The Intervention Initiative. Bristol: UWE and Public Health England.

* Berkowitz, AD. (2009). Response-Ability: A complete guide to bystander intervention. Chicago: Beck and Company. www.lulu.com 

** Step Up! Program, http://stepupprogram.org/facilitators/strategies-effective-helping/