Using bystander intervention training in the workplace

Lucie Mitchell investigates what bystander intervention training is and how it can be used as part of initiatives to counter sexism in the workplace.

Me Too


In the wake of #MeToo, and amid recent high-profile stories of workplace harassment, employers are only too aware of the urgent need to combat all types of inappropriate behaviour at work and create a safe, supportive and inclusive culture for their employees.

Statistics suggest that discrimination and harassment in the workplace remains a significant issue, with a BBC survey in 2017 revealing that 53% of women and 20% of men had experienced sexual harassment at work; while a 2019 Europe-wide study by ADP found that reports of workplace discrimination are highest in the UK, where 38% of UK workers say they have been discriminated against, compared to a European average of 30%.

This begs the question – how effective are current approaches to tackling workplace discrimination and harassment?

“Increasingly this question is being asked when it comes to diversity and inclusion initiatives in the workplace and, increasingly, there is a realisation that current approaches are not working,” remarks Kaammini Chanrai, gender research and policy manager at Business in the Community.

One initiative that has been put forward is bystander intervention training, which experts believe could be an effective tool in tackling many forms of inappropriate behaviour at work. “Implementing evidence-based initiatives should be at the heart of tackling workplace inequalities and bad behaviour, and bystander intervention training is an example of this,” comments Chanrai.

What is bystander intervention training?

It essentially involves equipping people with the skills to intervene when they witness a potentially harmful situation, such as bullying, racism, sexism, homophobia or any kind of unacceptable or negative behaviour.

“Bystander intervention training is about giving people the tools to stop or diffuse a situation where someone is at the receiving end of discrimination or harassment,” explains Liz Johnson, co-founder and managing director of The Ability People. “It’s a bit like social first aid, empowering people to act when they see someone facing prejudice. In situations like this, people want to help but often just don’t know what to do.”

Jessie Monck, learning and development consultant at the University of Cambridge, says that bystander intervention training can help people to understand the social norms that stop them from responding and what it means to be an active bystander.

“It includes raising awareness of the range of simple actions we can learn to use to support others around us and, over time, create a more respectful and inclusive environment for all of us to live and work in. Importantly it also supports the bystander themselves to change from thinking ‘I wish I’d done something’ to ‘I’m pleased I did something’.”

Training workshops will depend on the specific needs of your organisation and the issues you’re working on, says Johnson.

“A typical session involves explaining the wider context and implications of harassment and prejudice, before running through different intervention strategies and when to apply them,” she explains. “Different strategies work best in different situations. It’s then a case of using role play exercises to apply them to real life scenarios.”

How effective is bystander intervention training?

It’s a relatively new concept in the workplace, and research into its effectiveness is ongoing; however, responses so far have been positive.

“Studies from college campuses and the military have seen success, particularly when it comes to tackling sexual harassment and assault,” remarks Chanrai. “While this method is still new to most workplaces, enlightened organisations are getting ahead of the curve by implementing bystander intervention workshops sooner rather than later.”

The training should also be strategically linked to wider initiatives that aim to create a supportive and positive working environment.

“Bystander training needs to be supported by access to relevant skills and knowledge development, for example, effective communication skills and an understanding of diversity and inclusion,” says Monck. “Importantly, it needs to be backed up by a top level commitment to lead by example and take action where necessary to tackle poor behaviour.”

Chanrai suggests that initiatives such as unconscious bias training – which can sometimes be perceived as negative – could be supplemented by bystander intervention training, as it takes a more positive approach.

“It allows employees to build skills and support other colleagues, rather than alternatives which focus on people’s shortcomings,” she remarks.

Johnson adds that, while bystander intervention training is important, it can never replace unconscious bias training.

“After all, it’s unconscious bias which creates the conditions for harassment and visible examples of prejudice,” she comments. “If we want to end discrimination, harassment and prejudice in the workplace, it’s vital we change company culture. Whilst bystander intervention training is a key part of this, we need to employ a range of strategies to change the culture for good.”

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