The workplace is a space to connect with colleagues and to work towards common goals. All employees have the right to a physically and psychologically safe workplace. Organizational leaders and employees are in an important position to step in as active bystanders when instances of bullying, abuse, harassment, or discrimination, also known as BAHD behaviours, occur in the workplace. When bystanders, particularly organizational leaders, witness or are aware of BAHD behaviours occurring in the workplace but do not intervene, the employees being victimized may feel that the behaviour has been accepted or normalized in the workplace. In turn, they may feel powerless to prevent BAHD behaviour from continuing, or that they would not be supported if they chose to report the behaviour. Bystanders who choose to step in and support their co-workers who are experiencing BAHD behaviours can play an important role in maintaining physical and psychological safety in the workplace.
It takes courage to become an active bystander when we see a co-worker behaving BAHDly in the workplace, and it can be hard to know where to start. Here are some tips to make stepping up and stepping in safer and less intimidating so that you can protect your coworkers and yourself:
Verbal Communication: Do’s and Don’ts
- Remain calm in control of your emotions. This may have a calming effect on the aggressor.
- Focus your attention on the other person so they know that you’re interested in what they’re saying.
- Encourage the person to stay open-minded and objective throughout your conversation.
- Acknowledge the person’s feelings. For example, saying, “I can see that you are frustrated.”
- Be aware of the words you’re choosing and how you’re saying them.
- Speak slowly, quietly, and confidently.
- Listen carefully, without interrupting or offering advice or criticism.
- Glare or stare. This can be seen as a challenge.
- Allow the other person’s anger to become your anger.
- Use official language, complex terminology, or jargon.
- Communicate a lot of technical or complicated information when emotions are high.
- Tell the person to relax or calm down.
Non-Verbal Communication & Behaviour: Do’s and Don’ts
- Use calm body language. Keep a relaxed posture with your hands unclenched and a neutral, attentive expression.
- Position yourself so that the exit is not blocked.
- Position yourself at a right angle, rather than directly in front of the other person.
- Give the person enough physical space (generally 1-2 metres).
- Get on the other person’s physical level, rather than standing over them.
- Avoid physical violence or confrontation where possible. Walk away and get assistance from security or police.
- Take an aggressive or challenging pose, including:
- Standing directly opposite someone
- Putting your hands on your hips
- Pointing your finger
- Waving or crossing your arms
- Make sudden movements, which can be seen as threatening.
Responding to a Physical Attack: Do’s and Don’ts
- Make a scene. Yell or scream as loudly as you can until you gain others attention. Try shouting words like STOP, HELP, or FIRE.
- Blow a whistle, activate a personal security alarm, push the building security alarm or, as a last resort, pull the fire alarm.
- Give bystanders specific instructions to help you. Single someone out and send them for help; for example, “You in the yellow shirt, call 911!”
- Run to the nearest safe place (ex. a safe office or an open store).
- Call security or the police immediately after the incident.
- If the attack does not warrant calling the police, inform your supervisors and the authorities at your workplace.
- File an incident report, such as this report from the Respect in the Workplace program.
- Resist if someone grabs your purse, briefcase or other belongings. Throw the item several feet away from the thief and run in the opposite direction, yelling HELP or FIRE.
- Ever try and chase someone trying to steal from or assault you.
Tips for Dealing with an Aggressor If You Feel Safe:
- Tell the aggressor that their behaviour is offensive or unwanted, and to stop.
- Document what happened to you. You should use your organization’s incident report form or, if unavailable, this incident report form from the Respect in the Workplace program.
- Check your organizational policies and procedures and know your rights.
- If the behaviour is repeated, report it to your supervisor, HR, or a trusted colleague. If it contravenes the law, know that you have the right to report it to the police, but do not discuss details with other uninvolved coworkers.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance and support from your employer.
Tips for Dealing with an Aggressor If You Feel Unsafe:
- Avoid being alone with the aggressor and make sure you’re safe.
- Get support and assistance right away and report the incident to a trusted colleague, supervisor, or Human Resources.
- Document what happened to you, using your organization’s incident report process or by filling out this incident report form from the Respect in the Workplace program.
- Only talk to those who can support you and keep the information confidential. Speaking with uninvolved parties may add unwanted and unwelcomed dynamics that could further jeopardize the situation.
- Know your organization’s policies and procedures and know your rights.
Education is a crucial tool in the bystander’s toolkit. Through a strong understanding of BAHD behaviours, their impacts on employees and the workplace as a whole, and how to step up and step in when we witness or suspect these behaviours are occurring, we have the opportunity to keep the workplace safe and productive for all. You can learn more helpful tips for employees and organization leaders through the Workplace Strategies for Mental Health website. In addition, you can find more tools and information on empowering the bystander to address BAHD behaviours through our online programs here: