Bystanders intervention: taking action to stop workplace sexual harassment

Légende: Recommendation of our expert


Geneviève HERVIEUX,
professor, human resources management,
Université du Québec à Montréal


Rachèle HÉBERT, research professional, Université de Sherbrooke
Rébecca LEFEBVRE, research professional, Université de Sherbrooke
Étienne FOUQUET, research assistant, Université de Sherbrooke
Michel PÉRUSSE, associate professor, Université de Sherbrooke

This initiative was made possible through a collaboration with the Université de Sherbrooke.

Workplace sexual harassment is a persistent problem. Encouraging bystanders to intervene, directly or indirectly, therefore seems like a promising approach for dealing with it. How can these bystanders act to prevent or reduce the harm done to victims? To answer this question, we interpreted the study of McDonald and colleagues, carried out in collaboration with the Australian Anti-discrimination Commission and published in 2016. These authors’ objective was to examine the behaviours of bystanders to sexual harassment in various workplaces by analyzing the content of formal complaints filed by victims.

What do we mean by :

Sexual harassment

Generally speaking, it is a matter of behaviours, words or actions that are sexual in nature:

  • humiliating, offensive, abusive, hostile or unwanted;
  • repetitive;
  • affect the employee’s dignity or psychological or physical integrity;
  • create a harmful work environment.*


According to the analyzed study, bystanders are people who directly observe harassment, people to whom sexual harassment is reported, or people from whom victims of sexual harassment seek support or advice.

  • In the workplace, they can be directors of human resources or supervisors, colleagues or customers/clients;
  • Outside the workplace, friends, life partners or family members in whom the victim confides can be considered bystanders.

*CNESST definition: https://www.cnt.gouv.qc.ca/en/in-case-of/psychological-harassment-at-work/index.html

Clarification from our expert

Other types of interaction, all as complex as sexual harassment, must be considered when examining workplace sexual harassment:

  • The organizational context must be taken into account. Using a policy as a framework to deal with workplace sexual harassment will not be enough to resolve the problem if the complexity of the environment is not considered (e.g., organizational context, culture or unhealthy group dynamics).
  • Social, cultural and individual norms define, among other things, male/female relationships and behaviours that are judged to be acceptable or not. These norms vary by country:  for example, a flirting gesture that is socially acceptable and usual in one country will not necessarily be so in another country.
  • At individual level, the threshold of tolerance for behaviour, words and actions of a sexual nature at work depends on daily and past experiences and social interactions in the workplace environment. The ability to affirm and name one’s limits is indispensable for all.

It is therefore difficult to know with certainty where to draw the line when it comes to limits that should not be exceeded.
The grey area of workplace sexual harassment: Analysis of a situation does not involve only factual elements; it also depends on the interpretation done by the person involved.Do these behaviours, words or actions bother them? What one person might consider flirting, another person might take very badly. A shared responsibility regarding workplace sexual harassment? Our perception of sexual harassment is necessarily influenced by social norms, whether implicit or explicit. “They’re adults” or “If the person doesn’t want to say anything, it’s none of my business; it has nothing to do with me!” are frequently heard comments that reflect a trend, which still exists, to opt out of the situation. For this reason, in an organizational setting, a change of culture is sometimes needed so that everyone feels involved and so bystanders and victims feel comfortable naming and reporting sexual harassment. The elimination of sexual harassment in the workplace must become a responsibility shared by all!

Watch Out for Clichés!

The harasser does not always fit the cliché of someone who is provocative, indifferent or doesn’t mince their words. In fact, there is no profile type for a harasser. Also, sexual harassment is not a question of hierarchy. Sexual harassment can involve inappropriate behaviours, words or actions

  • by a manager toward a subordinate employee;
  • by a subordinate toward his/her manager;
  • between colleagues at the same hierarchical level;
  • by a group toward a single person (e.g., a manager harassed by members of the team he/she supervises).

What do the results of the study tell us?

What types of interventions are most often used by bystanders of workplace sexual harassment?

The authors categorized the actions (and inaction) of bystanders based on the immediacy of their intervention and their involvement when an incident of sexual harassment happened.

  • Immediacy refers to the time that elapsed between the sexual harassment and the bystander’s intervention. Immediacy is higher when the intervention happens during the incident.
  • Involvement refers to the bystander’s degree of involvement in reporting sexual harassment. Strong involvement is characterized by a public declaration of objectionable behaviour or by taking a firm stand and confronting the issue.

We can thus observe 5 types of intervention by bystanders.

  1. Low immediacy – low involvement
  2. Low immediacy – high involvement
  3. High immediacy – low involvement
  4. High immediacy – high involvement
  5. Inaction (absence of immediacy and involvement).

The victim’s colleagues are the most likely to act, compared to other types of relationships, such as the manager, human resources director, family members, friends or union representatives.


Detailed descriptions of sexual harassment cases from a range of Australian work contexts. 74 sources examined in the study:

  • 54 formal complaints filed with the Australian Anti-discrimination Commission (women 89% / men 11%)
  • 20 telephone interviews with workplace victims (women 86% / men 14%)


  • 84% = men toward women
  • 8% = men toward men
  • 4% = women toward women
  • 4% = women toward men

Around 66% of sources involved a harasser with organizational status that was higher than the victim’s (e.g., manager or employer), while 33% were harassers without a hierarchical relationship with the victim (e.g., colleague / customer / client).

This study highlights the importance of interventions by bystandersin preventing workplace sexual harassment. They are the cornerstone of a vision of shared responsibility when it comes to workplace sexual harassment.

Type of intervention by bystanders

Low immediacy – low involvement

  • The most frequent type of intervention.
  • Interventions that took place at a later timeand whose aim was preventing sexual harassment in the future.
  • Happen through private support without public or social involvement.
  • Mainly situations where victims confide, for example, with a colleague, family member or friend.
  • Types of responses offered by bystanders:
    • Sympathy
    • Acknowledgement that the words or actions crossed the line
    • Advice on action to take.
  • Advises the victim, in private, to avoid the harasser.
  • Discreetly tries to keep the harasser away from the victim.
  • Recommends that the victim report the incident, but does not get personally involved in the process.
  • Shares information from their own experience (personal strategies for putting a stop to active or passive behaviours or actions).
  • Advises requesting leave or stopping work, getting a doctor’s opinion.
  • Gives information on the organization’s formal procedures and policies.
  • Keeps material evidence (e.g., emails, text messages).

Low immediacy – high involvement

  • Second most frequent type of intervention.
  • Interventions that happen at a later time and whose aim is to prevent sexual harassmentin the future.
  • Bystanders show strong involvement(public and social).
  • Mainly situations where the bystander reports harassment through organizational channels or directly confronts the harasser.
  • Reports sexual harassmenton behalf of the victim.
  • Demands that the harasser stop the behaviour.
  • Demands that the harasser apologize to the victim.
  • Files a complaint with the human resources department or another upper level of the organization (with or without the victim’s consent).
  • Offers to accompany the victim to file their complaint.
  • Offers to be a witness in court: however, this support rarely happens.

High immediacy – low involvement

  • Less-frequent interventions than those of low immediacy – high involvement.
  • Interventions that happen during a current situation and focus on interrupting sexual harassment that is in progress.
  • Interventions that do not show strong involvement.
  • Mainly interventions that follow organizational protocols so as to end harassment.
  • Interrupts low-level incidents or gives signals to alert the victim when an incident of sexual harassment seems imminent.
  • Deliberately goes into a room at an opportune time.
  • Makes comments that aim to disrupt the incident, without confrontation.
  • Diverts the victim or the harasser to another workplace or to different shifts immediately after becoming aware of sexual harassment.
  • Deals with the incident in private, but directly with the alleged harasser: asks them to stop the behaviour immediately.
  • Starts an investigation into the alleged harasser on the reported incident.
  • Places the victim on leave/medical leave paid.

High immediacy – high involvement

  • The least frequent interventions.
  • Interventions that happen during a current situation of sexual harassment and focus on interrupting sexual harassment that is in progress.
  • Bystanders show strong involvement(public and social).
  • Intervenes publicly while objectionable actions are happening.
  • Challenges the harasser by publicly interrupting the incident or defending the victim during the incident.
  • Publicly requests that the harasser be disciplined.
  • Asks the harasser directly and immediately to stop the behaviour.

Inaction by bystanders

  • Unfortunately, inaction happens more often than interventions of low immediacy and low involvement.
  • Situations where direct bystanders of sexual harassment had a clear opportunity to speak or act in defence of the victim and didn’t do it.
  • In these situations, there is often evidence that the harasser holds poweror has authority over the bystander.
  • Bystanders are therefore afraid to act because the harasser is likely to act in a punitive way toward them.
  • Minimizes or reinterprets behaviours as being part of the harasser’s personality.
  • Stays silent during an incident of sexual harassment.
  • Withdraws or does not stand by the offer to support the victim or make a statement.
  • Tells the victim that they do not support his/her version of the facts.
  • Doubts a victim’s complaints, sometimes in spite of previous similar reports from other victims.
  • WARNING! In some situations, inaction can demonstrate the bystander’s complicity with the harasser:
    • Direct bystander who, instead of intervening, laughs at the situation.

Because studies must always be interpreted with caution

  • Information came from victims: adding supplementary information from other sources (e.g., bystanders) could reinforce the objectivity of evidence for analyzing results.
  • Differences in contextual and cultural sectors could influence the results obtained.
  • Factors such as the severity, duration and nature (physical, non-physical) of harassment are not taken into account in the study and can affect bystanders’ decision-making process when it comes to intervening.

Recommendations from our expert

The issue of workplace sexual harassment is a complex one, and generally, employees do not know how to act. Here are a few recommendations to guide interventions targeting sexual harassment and promoting shared responsibility.

The bystander

It is the bystander’s responsibility to:

  • act to counter sexual harassment. Possible actions involve supporting the victim to making a formal complaint
  • refer to examples presented in the above table to know how to act. Inaction should no longer be an option, even if it is difficult to take a stand if you are worried about also becoming a target.
The victim

It is the victim’s responsibility to:

  • speak, ask for advice and report in order to get support and ensure that the necessary actions are taken
  • make a note of the facts (dates, words, actions, behaviours) and keep any messages received (emails, text messages):
  • These notes allow you to catalogue the duration, nature and evolution of workplace sexual harassment.

This information will be useful in your defence, if needed. Notes prevent oversights and memory lapses caused by stressful situations.

Senior management
  • Laws addressing sexual harassment vary according to social/legal contexts.
  • There is no global standard. You must therefore refer to national or provincial legislation that governs harassment.
    • In Québec (Canada), for example, the Act Respecting Labour Standards, Division V.2 (Psychological Harassment) addresses sexual harassment.
Organizational policy
  • helps to counter sexual harassment
  • should, however, not be limited to a written document
  • must be clear and conveyed in the organization’s values, and senior management must show exemplary behaviour.
  • Senior management must be convinced and convincing in its message and in imposing a strict framework for confronting sexual harassmentto actively engage to prevent sexual harassment and intervene when it happens.

It is the responsibility of the organization’s senior management to:

  • create a committee dedicated to the issue of sexual harassment (or harassment in all its forms) whose aim is to communicate the message to all levels of the organization;
  • identify key people who have credibility, a certain amount of power and the interpersonal skills to carry the message and act as resource people;
  • hold an official launch of a new or existing policy by bringing together all employees to explain why this issue is important;
  • give concrete examplesof forms that sexual harassment can take in an organizational context (discuss gestures observed or experienced in this setting, or that are likely to happen);
  • announce very clearly that sexual harassment is not tolerated and never will be;
  • suggest that victims confide in someone they are comfortable with and refer to resource persons within the organization;
  • put in place an anonymous reporting system for employees (a bystander is more likely to report if they can do so anonymously);
  • offer training and remindersfor managers, colleagues, employees, external suppliers, customers/clients, etc.
  • eliminate stereotypes and prejudices.
A few pointers
  • The message must be communicated by people who have power in the organization and whose behaviour is beyond reproach.
  • A high frequency of small gestures is more effective than an annual intervention with several employees. Return to the subject often, send reminders from time to time and intervene with the harasser when an incident happens: “Come to my office. What you just did is unacceptable. I don’t want to see this type of behaviour/words happen again, etc. Do we understand each other?” Intervening as soon as the incident happens sends the message that someone is watching and that this behaviour will not be tolerated.
  • Frequent interventions by leaders (supervisors or colleagues) often have real impacts. These people support the employer’s message on workplace sexual harassment.
  • Looking at organizational structure, relationship dynamics and group dynamics (internal or external):
  • Rumours and hearsay reflect what is permitted or not in the organization. A no tolerance message toward sexual harassment must be clear.
  • Be alert and attentive to non-verbal communication: Although some people are quick to respond and are able to intervene with a harasser, many are not. If we notice that someone is annoyed or distressed when faced a situation of sexual harassment, we react based on our personal abilities. It is not necessary to always be part of the action and to do something in front of bystanders.
    • If we are comfortable doing so, we respond quickly;
    • We can also go and see the victim afterward. They will feel supported and will know that other people have noticed the situation. We can suggest that they report it. The important thing is to talk to people who have credibility!



If non-intervention toward sexual harassment is the status quo in an organization, this creates a dangerous situation: when leaders or bystanders are exempt from the responsibility of preventing sexual harassment, they reinforce the complexity of sexual harassment and diminish its moral intensity.

With time, non-intervention can create an environment that encourages sexual harassment. Paying particular attention to the involvement and commitment of leaders as well as to interventions by bystanders of sexual harassment is therefore essential to the effective management of workplace sexual harassment.


Hervieux, G., Fouquet, E., Hébert, R., Lefebvre, R., Pérusse, M.(2018). Bystanders intervention: taking action to stop workplace sexual harassment. Global-Watch Scientific Interpretation available at www.global-watch.com


McDonald, P., Charlesworth, S., & Graham, T. (2016). Action or inaction: bystander intervention in workplace sexual harassment. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 27(5), 548–566.

Pierre Breton
Author: Pierre Breton