How to stage a bystander intervention

by | Feb 15, 2018

It's time to stop being passive and start intervening

To foster a culture of inclusion organisations need to encourage and train employees on how to stage a bystander intervention. This will greatly reduce bias and sexism in the workplace.

One of the most important elements for any organisation wanting to foster a culture of inclusion is to create awareness. Specifically, how we can all help reduce toxic workplace cultures by staging a bystander intervention. Many companies encourage it, but don’t actually tell people how to go about it. Research has indicated that women can be more reluctant to intervene with a bystander intervention for fear of repercussions to their job security. This is especially true if those involved are senior and male. A bystander intervention can be an initiative which is very much in the hands of male colleagues.

Bystander intervention

People in minority groups and women are regularly demeaned and harassed in the workplace. This happens on an ongoing basis, every day. These “cuts” serve to create toxic and non-inclusive workplaces. It leads to a reduction in employee engagement and ultimately higher levels of employee attrition.  Employers need to give this priority because failure to do so will damage their employer brand.  We are focusing now on issues requiring bystander intervention that are verbal or procedural rather than physical. Clearly if a person is in physical danger then an alarm should be sounded for support, as well as doing what is practical at the time.

Creating an inclusive culture begins when you are hiring people. Contact 3Plus for help with Executive Search and Diversity Recruitment.

De-normalizing deviancy

One of the major steps is recognising that something inappropriate is actually taking place. Many of us are not mindful of negative incidents going on around us because they are so commonplace  they have become embedded into our cultures  becoming normalized. We simply fail to notice. Giving all employees unconscious bias training is a step in the right direction.

Two steps to stage a bystander intervention:

There are two opportunities to initiate a bystander intervention:

#1 At the time

It’s important to flag the issue up as one that is important to you, rather than on behalf of a potentially injured party. Otherwise you put the individual in the position of weakness again and cast them as a victim for the second time (re-victimization).

“Let’s keep the meeting professional and cut out inappropriate comments/ jokes etc. We should talk about this later.”

#2  Follow up

Speak to the party concerned and also someone senior. This might be an HR person or a manager. Specify your reasons for feeling uncomfortable or offended and suggest that some sort of policy be implemented.

    • To a peer:John, as your colleague when you make sexist comments in the office I feel extremely uncomfortable and would like you to stop. It creates a bad working atmosphere for the team and impacts our performance.”
    • To a senior person: "We seem to accept inappropriate, sexist remarks in the department. They make me personally uncomfortable and create tension on the team. I have spoken to the individual(s) involved, but think we should have a transparent and public policy of zero tolerance. What can you do to support that initiative?"

The more we are all willing to initiate a bystander intervention, the greater the impact on the broader workplace culture. Sexism, bias and discrimination will be easier to manage and hopefully reduced. We are staring to see a demand for third-party accountability so it's in everyone's' interest to make sure that our workplaces are inclusive, safe and secure

Contact 3Plus now if the women in your company need support and advice from a senior woman. Our Mentoring Programmes can help.

If you feel passionate about gender balance and topical issues impacting women in the workplace 3Plus would be delighted to publish your work. Don't wait - send it in

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