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The 4 Types of Bystanders

Updated: Jan 12, 2022

Before, during, and after a sexual harassment incident or a series of incidents, every person in the workplace assumes one of the following roles:

We are either the targeted individual - the person being harassed.

We’re the instigator of the incident - the person doing the harassing.

Or we’re a bystander - the person who sees or hears something but is not directly involved.

As bystanders, we each have the power to affect a situation either in a positive or negative way. Whether we speak up, take action, or do nothing, we are a part of the story and the outcome.

In general, there are 4 different types of support that we can provide to a targeted individual. These include:

  • Empowerment-based support: Encourages and supports someone with the ability to take action. Example: encouraging someone to speak up for themselves or encouraging them to report.

  • Action-based support: Steps into the situation to distract or somehow protect the targeted individual. Example: Removing the person from the situation or finding someone else to help (police, manager, etc).

  • Solution-based support: Takes action to resolve the issue, often by confronting the ‘instigator’. Example: defining the line for someone else.

  • Inactive: Being aware of the situation and choosing to not act or ignoring/negligence. Example: the mentality of “it’s not my problem”.

The worst thing we can do is be an inactive bystander. Like the great, Kelly Sue DeConnick once said,

"You don't get to be a good guy, just because you aren't a bad guy*".

We each have a responsibility to offer support when we hear or see something that's inappropriate.

Empowerment-based Support

Now you may be asking yourself, what about the times when someone tells me about something that happened a while ago or there was no one around to witness the interaction. The best way we can be an active bystander is by thanking the person for sharing their story and asking what actions (if any) they would like to take.

The worst thing we can do is not believe the person's story. While we may not know if what they are telling us is factual, the worst that can happen from believing the person is you later find out it wasn't true. On the flip side, if we don't believe them, then we're less likely to hear about future incidents or situations. And that's not good for anyone.

Action-based and Solution-based support

In any given situation involving harassment, bullying, or discrimination, there is a multitude of ways to respond or react. As a bystander, you have the power to create real-deal change. The 5 D’s of Bystander Intervention can help you navigate the best approach for the situation.


Direct – Use words or actions to stop what is going on.

Call out the harassment directly when you see or hear it. This can be as simple as saying something like, “That’s not funny,” “Hey, c’mon,” “That’s not appropriate” or even a simple “Really?” Remember to be confident, assertive, and calm as you intervene.


Distract – Interrupt the interaction.

This is the most creative and easy-to-utilize intervention style. As a bystander, find a way to disrupt the situation. Some examples of how to do this are steering the conversation to another topic, asking the harasser a question that is unrelated to the situation, or making a loud noise.


Delegate – Ask someone else to help.

Finding someone else that is more equipped to handle the situation, such as a leader in your organization, can help with a resolution. The delegate intervention can be a powerful tool when a situation has escalated and there is a need for an authority figure to intervene.


Delay – Check-in after the interaction.

You can always take action after a situation has occurred. Checking in with the person after an interaction, to see how they are feeling, is a great way to be a bystander. It shows that they are not alone in the situation, that they have an ally (that’s you!), and that they have a support system.


Document – Keep a record of what you observe.

It’s important to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and document what you witnessed. Make sure to record the name of those involved in the situation, the date or dates that the behavior occurred, the time, the location of the occurrence, a description of the behavior, and details of what happened. Remember to be as specific as possible. Documenting the words that were said or the actions that were taken in detail.


An inactive bystander is aware that something is going on, but does nothing to support or help. In our opinion, this is the only wrong type of bystander. We all have the power to positively impact a situation.

Whether you speak up, create a distraction, check-in with the person afterward, offer your support or document the situation, your actions and words can spark real change in and out of the workplace.

Define the Line is on a mission to eliminate workplace harassment. By training individuals, teams, and organizations we're creating allies in the workplace who are ready to speak up, define the line, and end workplace harassment.

*The use of the word guy does not imply that this is only a "guy" issue, it refers to all people.

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