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  • Leigh Kester

Active Bystander: What would you do?

"It is not enough to be compassionate. You must act." - Dalai Lama

active bystander

A common thought is that if you’re an empathetic person your instincts would be to intervene as an active bystander. The majority of people would like to say that they would step in if they were to witness unacceptable behaviours, in fact 88% of people who have not personally witnessed or experienced workplace misconduct, believe they would report it. When met with the reality of being a bystander the statistics demonstrate different behaviour from what we believe we would do; 83% of employees say that they have witnessed workplace bullying, however, 60% of bystanders report they did nothing to intervene.

So, what is stopping people from becoming an active bystander?

  • Shared responsibility, “someone else will step in” or that its someone else’s job “if my manager doesn’t think there’s an issue what gives me the right to step in”.

  • Repercussion on them along with stigma.

  • Perhaps it will put the bystander at risk.

  • They don’t feel skilled or trained up enough to confidently step in.

  • They think speaking up will make matters worse for the victim.

  • Unable to identify the subtleties of someone needing help or assistance.

The effects of unacceptable behaviour in the workplace can be detrimental when overlooked and left without intervention, not only to the witness but to the bystander and to the business itself. Around 65% of employees who have been bullied will lose their job either by resigning themselves or their position is terminated by the employer, due to them ‘not fitting in’, ‘not being a team player’ and/or ‘not moulding to our ways’. To the bystander this could set a precedent and a fear that they will not be supported if they were to come forward, potentially even mocked, excluded, or believed. The repercussions on the business can be significant with the average cost to replace an employee being £30,000, this includes the costs of recruitment, associated training for the employee and loss of earnings during this time, with 26 -28 weeks being the average time taken for the new employee to reach optimum productivity.

How can we make a culture change? Promote and educate in what being an active bystander means including the best and safest approach. Being an active bystander means to CARE.


By choosing one of these steps, the victim will know there is a line to be drawn and that the behaviours they experienced were unacceptable, they will feel supported and reassured. This will help develop an anti-bullying culture. When intervening in unacceptable behaviour, you are telling the perpetrator that you do not agree or support their actions, that there are people willing to intercede and that there is also a witness to what has happened, which may impact on the perpetrator repeating the same or similar action, because they risk exposure and disciplinary action.

It is important to understand that being an active bystander not only means helping another, but it also means that if you feel uncomfortable or offended by something you’ve seen or heard, you can interject, you don’t need to step back and wait. You have a right to speak up. There is also a good chance that others felt negatively impacted.

Many companies ‘claim’ to have a speak out culture, but do they? It is essential to have a safe support network and to encourage individuals to step forward by removing any stigma or anticipated ramifications, such as:

  • Social isolation (being considered a tell-tale or isolated out of office events and conversation).

  • Missing out on work opportunities (A new client, not being invited to big meetings or not being considered for that long-awaited promotion).

  • Being bullied/harassed (After witnessing an incident, the matter wasn’t dealt with securely and the attention has been drawn to them).

Demonstrating that the workplace is safe space to be a pro-active bystander is important and some steps to achieve this could be:

  • Consider a Zero Tolerance Policy on unacceptable behaviours.

  • Circulate the companies process of dealing with reported incidents.

  • Frequent internal staff surveys to monitor activity and effectiveness.

  • Consider an anonymous reporting method.

  • Share access to any employee assistance programmes.

gandhi quote

Over time Gandhi’s quote has been interpretated to “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. To start a change in your workplace culture, you look to the people. It is important to educate, build confidence and instil the tools to be able to approach a situation as an active bystander to everyone within the organisation. The definition of culture is the ideas, customs and social behaviour of collective people or society. Training the individual, will create a collective responsibility and an individual ability to act.


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