Responsible bystander

In brief

Through our everyday interactions we are challenging or enforcing social norms, we are leading by example and role modelling behaviour.

Broadly speaking there are four types of intervention an individual can take when they are a bystander to inappropriate behaviour or language: Direct, Distract, Delegate and Delay.  You may need to use more than one intervention, depending on the situation.

This is an overview of Bystander Intervention. To explore this area further we recommend arranging Bystander training; see the in depth section for more details. 

Here are some approaches and phrases you might use, but it is important to find the language that feels natural to you.  

The 4 Ds of being a Responsible Bystander 

A direct intervention is when a bystander confronts a situation themselves. Here are examples:

  • If it is safe to, challenge the behaviour / language.
Can we talk this through calmly?
The language you are using is making me uncomfortable
  • Seek clarification, providing the person an opportunity to reflect on what they have said
Could you repeat/ explain that, I’m not sure I understood what you said
  • Offer your support to the receiver
Are you ok?
…. makes a valid point, I’d like to hear more
  • Sometimes the very act of sitting or standing beside the receiver can be empowering and make them feel supported. 

For examples of the direct approach, you may find these short films useful:

If you do not feel able to directly intervene you may want to distract in order to diffuse the situation and allow things to calm down. Here are some examples: 

  • Interrupt or distract both parties to derail and de-escalate the situation.

I really need to speak to...
Are you ready to go to that meeting?
  • Changing the focus of the conversation can be a signal to the person that you do not support or agree with their statement.    

Can we talk about ….

Watch this short film Distract (MP4) for an example of the distract approach.

You may choose to enlist some help in order to intervene. Here are some examples: 

  • Seek help if there are other bystanders.

This is getting out of hand, we need to step in
This is not right, we need to say something

Watch this short video Group (MP4) for an example of the delegate approach, where you are seeking support from other bystanders.

  • Tell someone what you witnessed: a line manager, HR, Departmental Administrator, Head of Department.

I’m not sure what was going on but I witnessed this and it made me feel uncomfortable. I thought it was important you knew

We often freeze in the moment or it didn’t feel right at the time to say anything, but it is never too late to act.

  • Approach either or both parties later, replay what you observed and why you felt uncomfortable.

  • Advise the receiver there are people they can talk to (e.g. Departmental Administrator, HOD, Harassment Advisor and HR).

  • Remember we can often change the behaviour of others by role modelling good behaviour ourselves.

In depth

Additional resources

Bystander intervention is a vital component in tackling bullying and harassment, as we all have a part to play in creating our workplace culture.  Through our everyday interactions we are challenging or enforcing social norms, we are leading by example and role modelling behaviour.  The Responsible Bystander workshop aims to empower you with the confidence and tools to challenges problematic behaviour in a safe, respectful and productive way before it escalates to bullying and harassment.  

If you would like to organise this training for your department or faculty, please contact

Responsible Bystander Poster (PDF)

Visit People and Organisational Development to access online courses to build your confidence in challenging behaviour including:

  • Assertiveness: managing relationships in the workplace
  • Difficult conversations 
  • Influencing skills