The Power of Bystander Intervention

Bystander intervention has been featured prominently in the news recently, with witnesses at the trial centered on the death of George Floyd recounting their observance of his alleged murder and their failure to take action, and with video footage of a brutal attack of a Filipino woman just outside a Manhattan building, where three security guards failed to step in and help her. Bystander intervention, which is the recognizing of a potentially harmful situation or interaction and choosing to respond in a way that could positively influence the outcome, is a proven method for counteracting discriminatory and harassing behavior. When an outsider – an observer – is the one to step in and oppose someone committing a violent, discriminatory, or harassing act, the wrongdoer is more likely to change their behavior than if the only protests come from the victim.

Bystander intervention training is key to harassment and discrimination prevention and has proven impact. One study on bystander intervention, by the University of New Hampshire, shows that 38% of men who saw a bystander intervention campaign said they intervened to stop a sexual assault, in contrast with only 12% of the group who did not see the campaign.

The basics are as follows. A witness to a problematic situation can engage as a bystander by following these five steps:

  1. Notice the event;
  2. Interpret it as a problem;
  3. Assume personal responsibility;
  4. Determine how to help; and
  5. Only where deemed safe to do so, implement the help.

Bystander intervention doesn’t have to culminate in attacking the wrongdoer, but can be as simple as causing a distraction to diffuse the situation. What action is taken should hinge on the specific facts at issue, the risk assessment, and whether a bystander can get assistance from others to join in diffusion efforts. The action may be as simple as calling for or delegating help to someone more able, or verbally warning the assaulter that his actions are unlawful or that backup to arrest him is on its way.

The more that bystanders are willing to jump in, the more impact those actions will have on changing the behaviors of individuals and the ills of society.

Recognizing that bystander intervention is an important strategy for countering unlawful discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace, Reavis Page Jump LLP has long included bystander intervention as a component in the employee training programs we provide to businesses and organizations. Moreover, for employers in New York City in particular, the law that requires covered employers to provide annual sexual harassment prevention training to their employees specifically requires that bystander intervention be included. For any Connecticut employer rushing to meet the April 19 deadline by which their employees must receive sexual harassment training, we strongly recommend that bystander intervention be included as well. To learn more about bystander intervention, please see my instructional video below.


To learn more about RPJ’s live trainings (in-person or on Zoom) or the on-demand training courses, please visit our Training Programs page, or contact Deena R. Merlen directly by email at or phone at 212-763-4160 (NY) or 203-653-4422 (CT).

This article is intended only as a general discussion of these issues. It is not considered to be legal advice or relied upon in regard to particular legal matters. If you seek assistance with a particular employment law or labor law matter, please contact RPJ Partner Ethan Krasnoo to discuss. Attorney Advertising.