Cultural change

The bystander effect in the workplace. Learn intervention strategies to prevent violence at work

In this article, we explore the bystander effect and discuss strategies to stop harassment and sexual violence occurring in the workplace and campus.
What is the bystander effect. Take action on college campuses and workplaces today.

Warning: This article contains discussions of sexual misconduct, harassment, and related themes that might be distressing to some readers.

What is the bystander effect?

The bystander effect, often called bystander apathy, is where individuals are less likely to assist someone in distress if others are present. This behaviour is rooted in the belief that others will intervene, leading to situations where no one steps in to help.

One of the most widely cited examples of the bystander effect was the case of Kitty Genovese in New York City in 1964. Despite being attacked in a populated area with several witnesses present, no immediate assistance was offered. It's widely believed that witnesses to the event may have assumed that others would intervene, diffusing the responsibility to act.

Understanding the bystander effect is essential, especially as it manifests in various settings, from public spaces to universities and workplaces, affecting how individuals respond to an emergency situation requiring intervention.

Diffusion of responsibility

Diffusion of responsibility is a socio-psychological phenomenon where individuals feel a diminished sense of personal responsibility to act when others are present. This reduction in perceived responsibility can lead to inaction, especially in situations where intervention is required.

The essence of this phenomenon is the belief that others will intervene or that the responsibility to act is shared among all witnesses. As the number of bystanders increases, each individual's sense of personal duty to intervene decreases.

Research by American psychologists Darley and LatanΓ© has been instrumental in understanding this phenomenon. Their studies highlighted how the presence of other bystanders can significantly reduce the likelihood of an individual offering help in emergency situations. Their findings have been foundational in social psychology, emphasising the importance of understanding group dynamics and individual responsibility.

Passive bystander

A passive bystander is an individual who observes a situation but does not take any action to intervene. Various factors can influence this lack of intervention, but two primary elements play a significant role: social norms and social influence.

Social norms, the unwritten rules about how to behave in particular situations, can discourage individuals from stepping out of their comfort zones or going against the perceived status quo. When these norms dictate that intervention is not the 'norm,' individuals may hesitate to act, even if they believe the situation is wrong.

Social influence, on the other hand, refers to how people change their behaviour based on the actions or beliefs of others. In the context of bystander behavior, if no one else is taking action, an individual might assume that the intervention is unnecessary or even inappropriate.

The consequences of passive bystander behaviour can be severe, especially for victims of violence. When bystanders do not intervene in situations of violence against women or family violence, it leaves the victim vulnerable and perpetuates a culture where such actions are tolerated. The lack of intervention can further traumatise victims, making them feel isolated and unsupported in their distressing moments.

Active bystander

An active bystander is an individual who not only observes a potentially harmful situation but also chooses to intervene or challenge it. This proactive approach sets them apart from passive bystanders, who might witness the same situation but refrain from taking action.

Active bystanders can prevent instances of violence, promote respectful relationships, and foster a workplace culture where inappropriate or threatening behaviours are not tolerated. Active bystanders often serve as valuable allies in combating disrespectful behaviour and play a crucial role in preventing incidents from escalating.

As we will discuss, individuals can employ various strategies to become an active bystander. Direct intervention is one approach where the bystander directly addresses the situation. However, if direct intervention feels unsafe or uncomfortable, seeking assistance from authorities or people nearby is another viable option. Bystander training programs have been developed to equip individuals with the skills and knowledge to intervene effectively and safely in various situations.

Differences in perceptions of sexual harassment

The Australian Human Rights Commission defines sexual harassment as unwelcome sexual behaviour that a reasonable person would anticipate would make someone feel offended, humiliated or intimidated. This can include actions like staring, leering, unwelcome touching, suggestive comments, and sharing sexually explicit content.

The perceptions of what constitutes harassment can significantly impact bystander intervention. If an act is not universally recognised as harassment, bystanders might be less likely to intervene in cases of sexual assault or violence. This is particularly concerning as both men and women can experience sexual harassment, but it is most commonly experienced by women.

For effective bystander intervention, it's crucial to promote a universal understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment and the severe consequences it can have on victims. This understanding can be fostered through education, awareness campaigns, and clear workplace policies.

Bystander effect in the workplace

Employees often witness instances of unethical or inappropriate behaviour, such as harassment, discrimination, or other forms of mistreatment. However, the presence of others can deter them from speaking up or taking action, especially if the perpetrator is of significant status in an organisation.

Inaction can have severe consequences. Not only does it perpetuate a culture where such behaviours are tolerated, but it can also lead to increased workplace bullying and harassment. Victims may feel isolated and unsupported, decreasing morale, productivity, and overall well-being.

In the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, workplaces have a legal obligation to address sexual violence and harassment in the workplace or campus. Likewise, new Work Health and Safety laws now mandate the elimination of psychosocial hazards in the workplace. Failing to do so can result in legal consequences, including lawsuits and penalties. Workplaces must take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate unlawful conduct and actively foster a safe environment for their employees.

Bystander intervention strategies

In Australia, creating a safe and respectful work environment is not just a moral imperative but also a legal one. Organisations are bound by law to prevent sexual harassment, discrimination on the ground of an employee's protected attributes and workplace bullying to ensure the well-being of their employees.

Let's investigate the strategies of intervention:

Primary prevention strategies

Primary prevention strategies are proactive measures implemented before violence or inappropriate behaviour occurs. The focus is on circumventing violence by addressing its root causes or determinants, mitigating risk factors associated with violence, and bolstering protective factors against it. Successful primary prevention ensures that the first instance of violence is entirely prevented. It also emphasises the role individuals can play in challenging societal attitudes, norms, behaviours, and power imbalances that contribute to violence against women.

To ensure positive duty compliance with the Sex Discrimination Act Respect@work reforms, your organisation should refer to the Australian Human Rights Commission guidelines that outline the 7 standards every business must adhere to.

To combat the bystander effect in the workplace, organisations can implement training programs that educate employees about the importance of intervening and provide them with the tools and strategies to do so effectively and safely. For medium-to-large businesses, universities and organisations, implementing an anonymous reporting tool may be an effective solution where employees can speak up freely without fear of retribution. Many anonymous reporting solutions include features such as pulse surveys for conducting culture audits. These tools gather employee feedback and help in the early detection and prevention of workplace misconduct.

Secondary prevention strategies: The 5 D's

Secondary prevention strategies focus on the early detection and intervention in an unsafe situation. The goal is to intervene swiftly, preventing the escalation and effect of violence and addressing the immediate aftermath of violence. This form of prevention often involves actions taken at or after specific incidents of wrongdoing. Bystanders play a crucial role in secondary prevention by acting promptly to mitigate the impact of violence.

Direct intervention

This approach involves the bystander stepping in and addressing the inappropriate behaviour directly. This could mean calmly and assertively pointing out that a comment was inappropriate or asking someone to stop a particular behaviour in the workplace. It's essential to ensure that the intervention does not escalate the situation. Instead, the goal is to clarify that such behaviours are unacceptable in the workplace.


Distraction is a more subtle approach where the bystander diverts attention away from the situation to de-escalate it. In a workplace setting, this could involve starting a new topic of conversation when inappropriate comments are made or finding a reason to move the person being targeted away from the situation. The primary aim is to interrupt the flow of the problematic behaviour without directly confronting the perpetrator.


Delegation involves seeking assistance from others. In the workplace context, this could mean talking to a supervisor, HR representative, or another authority figure about the observed behaviour. It's instrumental when the bystander feels they might not have the influence or authority to intervene directly but knows someone who does.


While immediate intervention is often preferred, there are emergency situations where it might not be safe or appropriate to intervene on the spot. The delay approach involves checking in with the victim after the incident to offer support, gather more information, and discuss potential next steps. In the workplace, this could mean approaching a colleague after a meeting to express concern and offer assistance.


Documentation is a crucial step in ensuring that there's a record of inappropriate behaviour or incidents in the workplace. Bystanders can take notes of dates, times, locations, individuals involved, and the nature of the behaviour or comments made. Copying emails or other written forms of communication can also be beneficial. This documentation can serve as evidence if the issue escalates or if formal complaints are made later. In the Australian workplace context, having a clear record can be invaluable in investigations and support the victim's claims, ensuring appropriate actions are taken against perpetrators.

Tertiary prevention strategies

Tertiary prevention comes into play after an act of violence has already occurred. It focuses on long-term responses, aiming to address the lasting consequences of violence, restore health and safety, and prevent further victimisation and perpetration. Activities under this prevention strategy are centred on person-centred and trauma-informed responses that minimise the impact of violence and ensure that victims receive the support and care they need. In this context, bystanders can contribute by offering support to victims, ensuring that perpetrators face consequences, and working towards creating an environment where recurrence is less likely.

Below Deck Down Under demonstrated a good example of bystander intervention in preventing violence in the workplace
Captain Jason and Aesha discuss the reports of sexual misconduct on Below Deck Down Under.

Example of bystander interventions: The Below Deck Down Under incident

On reality TV, where drama is often scripted, the events on Below Deck Down Under - Season 2 presented a real-life risk that required direct intervention. The crew's response served as a poignant example of bystander intervention in a professional setting, highlighting the importance of taking action in the workplace.

Background: During an episode aired on August 7, two crew members, Luke and Laura, were involved in separate incidents of sexual misconduct. Luke, after a night out, entered the cabin of Margot, a young woman and crew member who was unconscious at the time. Margot had clearly stated she was going to bed and was not interested in Luke being with her. Separately, Laura made several unwanted advances towards deckhand Adam, despite his clear indications of disinterest. Adam did not report the incident to the captain as he did not want to "make a big deal" of the harassment.

Intervention: The production team, who typically remain behind the scenes, took the unprecedented step of breaking the "fourth wall" and intervening when Luke entered Margot's cabin naked. Recognising the potential harm and violation of boundaries, the film crew physically removed Luke from the scene, ensuring Margot's safety. Aesha, the chief steward, reported the incident to the captain, Jason Chambers, who took swift action by removing Luke from the ship.

In Laura's case, Aesha reported her harassment of Adam to the captain. After being informed of her inappropriate behaviour toward Adam and her insensitive comments regarding Luke's actions, Captain Jason decided to terminate her employment, emphasising the importance of respecting boundaries and the feelings of fellow crew members.

Actions and outcomes: Captain Jason Chambers convened a crew meeting to emphasise the importance of respecting boundaries and maintaining professionalism in the workplace. He reinforced a zero-tolerance policy towards any form of serious misconduct, leading to the termination of both Luke and Laura's employment. The captain's decisive actions clearly conveyed the importance of maintaining a safe and respectful environment.

The crew's response was widely appreciated by fans, who were alarmed by the incidents but impressed by the swift and decisive intervention taken by both the production crew and the ship's captain. Margot and Aesha publicly thanked the production team and Captain Jason for their support and intervention.

Conclusion: The "Below Deck Down Under" incident underscores the importance of bystander intervention. The film crew's proactive approach, combined with Captain Jason's decisive actions, ensured the safety of the crew members and reinforced the importance of maintaining boundaries and respect. This incident serves as a powerful reminder that, regardless of the setting, everyone is responsible for taking action when witnessing inappropriate or threatening behaviours, ensuring a safe and respectful workplace for all.

MATE bystander program

The MATE Bystander Program, a Griffith University and Victorian Health Promotion Foundation project, is an educational and intervention initiative designed to empower individuals to be proactive in preventing domestic violence, interpersonal violence and workplace sexual violence.

Training individuals to become active bystanders is paramount in creating a culture where everyone feels empowered to act against inappropriate or threatening behaviours. Different bystander intervention training methodologies, such as workshops, webinars, and interactive sessions, ensure participants are well-equipped to intervene safely and effectively. The MATE Bystander Training, for instance, focuses on teaching individuals to become proactive bystanders who can step in and address problematic behaviour. Research plays a crucial role in shaping and improving these training programs, ensuring they remain relevant, effective, and aligned with the evolving societal norms and challenges.

Take action in the workplace

Sexual assault and harassment are serious breaches of professional conduct and may even lead to criminal charges. Every individual, from entry-level employees to senior management, has a moral obligation to intervene in cases of unlawful behaviour or potential harm, ensuring the safety and well-being of their colleagues.

A safe workplace is built on respect, understanding, and proactive intervention. Organisations must prioritise the establishment of clear policies against harassment and violence, regular training sessions on bystander intervention, and the promotion of a culture where everyone feels empowered to act against inappropriate or threatening behaviours. The introduction and promotion of a whistleblowing hotline or anonymous reporting software in the workplace can further encourage employees to speak up about their concerns without fear.

By taking action against sexual assault and violence and fostering a culture of proactive intervention, workplaces not only support their employees but also contribute to building a more respectful and harmonious professional environment.

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