How to be an Active Bystander

Every day events unfold around us. At some point, we will register someone at risk. When this happens, we will decide to do or say something (and become an active bystander), or to simply let it go (and remain a passive bystander).

When we intervene, we signal to the instigator that their behaviour is unacceptable. If such messages are constantly reinforced within our community, we can shift the boundaries of what is considered acceptable and problem behaviour can be stopped.

Learning to recognise when someone is being victimised and how you can intervene safely is an essential skill. Safely intervening could mean anything from:

  • a disapproving look, interrupting or distracting someone;
  • not laughing at a sexist or a homophobic joke;
  • talking to a friend about their behaviour in a non-confrontational way;
  • to caring for a friend who’s experienced problematic behaviour.

Other times, it means asking friends, staff, or the police for help.

How to be an Active Bystander

Sometimes, a situation just does not feel right. It might be comments made by a colleague or student that you feel are inappropriate or you spot someone being harassed in your halls of residence or at your workplace.

Being an active bystander means being aware of when someone’s behaviour is inappropriate or threatening and choosing to challenge it. If you do not feel comfortable doing this directly, then get someone to help you such as a colleague, friend, or someone in a senior position.

Research shows that bystander intervention can be an effective way of stopping assault before it happens, as bystanders play a key role in preventing, discouraging, and/or intervening when an act of violence has the potential to occur.

Before stepping in, try the ABC approach

Assess for safety: If you see someone in trouble, ask yourself if you can help safely in any way. Remember, your personal safety is a priority – never put yourself at risk.

Be in a group: It is safer to call out behaviour or intervene in a group. If this is not an option, report it to others who can act.

Care for the victim. Talk to the person who you think may need help. Ask them if they are okay.

How You Can Intervene Safely

When it comes to intervening safely, remember the four Ds – direct, distract, delegate, delay.

Direct action

Call out negative behaviour, tell the person to stop or ask the victim if they are okay. Do this as a group if you can. Be polite. Don’t aggravate the situation - remain calm and state why something has offended you. Stick to exactly what has happened, don’t exaggerate.


Interrupt, start a conversation with the instigator to allow their potential target to move away or have friends intervene. Or come up with an idea to get the victim out of the situation – tell them they need to take a call, or you need to speak to them; any excuse to get them away to safety. Alternatively, try distracting, or redirecting the situation.


If you are too concerned or shy to speak out, or you don’t feel safe to do so, get someone else to step in. For example – ask the staff within the situation to act.


If the situation is too difficult to challenge then and there (such as there is the threat of violence or you are outnumbered) just walk away. Wait for the situation to pass then ask the victim later if they are okay. Or report it when it’s safe to do so – it’s never too late to act.

And remember, never put yourself in danger. Only intervene if safe to do so.

Adapted from Pearn Kandola’s Racism at Work series