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Three Pathways to Becoming a Bystander

Updated: Mar 8, 2022

Standing up to inappropriate workplace behaviour.

Over the past 6 months or so there has been increased focus on developing skills to call out poor behaviour in the workplace. Until recently that has been framed by the term ‘bystander’, but increasingly we are using ‘upstander’ to define the behaviours you are looking to develop.

Coined by Samantha Power, when she was promoting her Pulitzer Prize winning book it represents a movement away from being a (passive) bystander of harassment, bullying and injustice towards actively standing up for what is right in the workplace. It acknowledges that whether you are the instigator, the recipient, or someone standing by - when a culture of ongoing and deliberate misuse of power exists in a workplace everyone is affected and everyone has a part to play in creating change.

Transforming from a passive bystander to an active upstander takes courage. In our work with EEO Specialists we explore three pathways towards becoming an upstander in the workplace, and the skills and characteristics that can help you along the way.

Call It

The most courageous and powerful step towards becoming an upstander is to call out behaviour when you are on the receiving end, immediately and in the moment. We recognise though that this is incredibly difficult. People who are being bullied, harassed or mistreated often feel powerless, and unable to stand up for themselves. We all have different tolerances for conflict and a distinct capacity to speak up - so this isn’t for everyone.

If you see a power imbalance in your workplace creating uncomfortable situations for others you might feel like it doesn’t directly involve you. Whether you have a relationship with the person or not you have the power to advocate on the recipients behalf.

Because you are outside of the conflict, you are in a position to point out the behaviour you have observed (objectively) and the impact it is having on others. This may be easier if you are in a position of authority in your workplace. In fact, due to this - it will be your responsibility to address bullying and harassment. Anyone in a supervisor, managerial or leadership role has a higher duty of care to look out for their teams emotional and physical safety and wellbeing. They may not always live up to this responsibility (they might be conflict avoidant or too task focussed) but ultimately everyone has a right to feel safe at work.

If you are a peer or a colleague you can still call out inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. Calling out superiors is challenging and might be career limiting. A strong workplace culture though makes room for anyone to call out poor behaviours regardless of their position or title.

Despite the wide array of training available on providing feedback and confronting behaviour in the workplace the direct approach might not be suitable for your situation, if this is the case then there are two other pathways available to you.

Report It

Report the behaviour to somebody who will take action. Australians aren’t fond of the idea of ‘dobbing’ someone in - a culture that starts back at school and continues into the workplace.

If your manager isn’t unaware of poor behaviour then there’s nothing they can do to address it. It’s time to leave the playground behind, and accept that in a professional setting it is perfectly acceptable to report poor behaviour.

If you aren’t sure who the appropriate person to speak with is, find out who has a duty of care in your situation, it could be a line manager or supervisor. You can also seek out assistance from support officers or Human Resources. Brush up on your workplace’s bullying and harassment policies and complaint procedures. Remember the recipient may feel overwhelmed, embarrassed or afraid to seek help themselves. As an objective third party your observations of the situation carry weight and can lead to effective change.

If you don’t know who to trust, or you haven’t worked in your organisation long enough to understand the culture - and you don’t feel you can report the behaviour; there is still another pathway left open to you.

Be A Support

Perhaps the most meaningful and immediate action of being an upstander, is supporting the person on the receiving end of bullying and harassment. This support can fall anywhere along a continuum of simply asking “are you okay?”, to helping them seek support, assisting them to take steps towards reporting the behaviour, or confronting the behaviour themselves.

Simply acknowledging that you are aware of the behaviour and its impact is very powerful. When we remain silent bystanders, people can feel extremely isolated or even come to believe that others condone or support the poor behaviour. If you aren’t sure what to say, taking the time to ask how the recipient is feeling and listen to their perspective can be incredibly empowering.

If the recipient is ready and willing to take action, it helps to be aware of what options are available to them. You can find out about your organisation's policies and procedures, your code of conduct, what access there is to an Employee Assistance Program, who is the most appropriate person to talk to in the HR team. People on the receiving end of bullying and harassment aren’t always in the right headspace to think through their next steps - you can support them by talking through their options.

You can’t force someone to take action - you can help colleagues feel safe and encourage that they seek help.

Changing Culture

Whether you choose to call out poor behaviour directly, report it to someone else, provide support to those on the receiving end, or a combination of all three - you can be a part of transforming your workplace culture. While it can be easy to think that if the behaviour doesn’t affect you it isn’t your problem, the reality is we make it easier for bullying and harassment to occur, when we stand by and do nothing. It may take courage, knowledge and even learning some new skills, but everyone can be an upstander and contribute to a better workplace.

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