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Employers shouldn’t stand-by if they don’t want their employees to, and other lessons from RT’s Workplace Bystander Survey

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Although there is a lot of buzz around bystanders these days, most of this discussion relates to encouraging bystander interventions in order to curb sexual harassment and violence on university campuses. At Rubin Thomlinson, this has got us thinking: What about workplaces? Why isn’t anyone talking about bystanders in the context of workplaces?

As the saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and so, we decided to take matters into our own hands and lead the charge with respect to kick-starting a broader dialogue about the role bystanders in our workplaces.

But first…we needed data.

Many of you may know that on May 10, 2017, we circulated an invite to participate in an RT Survey to all of our email subscribers and others connected to the Rubin Thomlinson community.

The purpose of this survey was to learn more about an invaluable resource for employers looking to combat workplace discrimination and harassment that has largely gone untapped… the workplace bystander.

By the time our survey closed on June 1st, we had received a total of 184 responses. Because of the nature of our contact pool, most of these respondents were legal professionals, human resources specialists or persons with management functions and most were based in Ontario.

Despite the self-selected nature of the participant pool, the survey provided us with invaluable insight into bystander interventions as they apply to modern workplaces. Here are five lessons that we learned and how it can help employers to more effectively harness the power of the workplace bystander:

  1. Most of us have been workplace bystanders at one time or another

According to the survey responses, 79 per cent of respondents had personally witnessed, heard of or heard about harassment and discrimination in their workplace.

This confirms what we – at Rubin Thomlinson – already knew to be true based on our extensive experience conducting workplace investigations: harassment and discrimination are pervasive in Canadian workplaces – often much more so than employers believe.

What was more surprising and interesting to us, was the fact that, of the participants who identified as “workplace bystanders”, 87 per cent elected to do something about it.

Of the group that chose to take action, the largest subsets chose to do so by telling someone in HR or management about the incident (27 per cent) or telling the person engaged in the behaviour to stop (33 per cent).

This data tells us that, contrary to conventional wisdom, many employees are willing to intervene in response to problematic workplace behaviour. Given the size of this group and their obvious motivation to act, this seems like an invaluable resource that employers should not ignore.

  1. Workplace bystanders know right from wrong

Our survey results suggest that, like bystanders in other contexts (for example, those who witness violent acts or crimes being committed), workplace bystanders are motivated to act or not act based on their sense of what is right and wrong.

Of those participants who elected to do something in response to the harassment or discrimination they witnessed, heard or heard about, 35 per cent indicated that they responded simply because “it was the right thing to do”.

With respect to the reason why they chose the specific intervention action that they did (e.g. telling HR or management, telling the person engaged in the behaviour to stop), 39 per cent indicated that they chose the particular response because “it was the right thing to do”.

This tells us that, in order to effectively leverage bystanders in the workplace, it is not enough to simply tell them that they must take action because it is required by law or policy.  Employers must go a step further by also appealing to employees’ morality and tapping into their sense of justice, fairness and empathy. In this regard, please see Rubin Thomlinson’s article on The Corporation of the City of Brampton and The Brampton Professional Firefighter’s Association, Local 1068 International Association of Firefighters (2016 Can LII 87624 (ON LA)) which includes several examples of bystander interventions, including interventions that were prompted by empathy.

  1. We want more bystander action in our workplaces

According to our survey, 83 percent of the survey respondents indicated that they felt that increasing bystander interventions was something that organizations should strive for.

Not only does this data suggest a positive perception of the potential impact of workplace bystanders among employees, it also identifies a potential opportunity for growth in this area.

We know that that under-reporting of discrimination and harassment is a major issue in Canadian workplaces. Indeed, according to the Angus Reid Institute’s 2014 study on sexual harassment, four out of five of the respondents who indicated that they had been sexually harassed or worse, said they never reported it.

These findings are echoed in a 2016 study by the United States’ Equal Employment Opportunity Commission which found that only 6 to 13 per cent of women who experienced unwanted sexual advances in the workplace filed a formal complaint to this effect and less than one-third reported the behaviour to their employer or to human resources.

The statistics also paint a bleak picture with respect to the reporting of workplace bullying.  According to a 2017 National Survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute (U.S.), 29 per cent of targets chose to remain silent about their workplace bullying experiences. In other words, they did not report the behaviour to an employer representative (e.g. HR, manager) nor did they tell anyone outside of the workplace.

In light of this, employers should consider workplace bystander action as one of the tools in their toolbox to close the gap between reported and under-reported incidents of workplace discrimination and harassment.

Indeed, this potential application was highlighted in our survey results. Among other things, participants felt that bystanders could step in where targets were too vulnerable or fearful to complain about problematic behaviour themselves. Participants also felt that a more active bystander presence could help to prevent harassment altogether by changing workplace culture and sending a powerful message to bullies.

  1. We need help getting there

Our survey revealed that only 49 per cent of survey respondents work for organizations that have a policy in place that explicitly speaks to workplace interventions and only 40 per cent indicated that their organizations provide training on the subject.

The survey also found that 69 per cent of respondents work for organizations that do not have an anonymous employee complaint hotline (e.g. a 1-800 number).

Knowing that many employees are motivated to act and that they see the benefit to bystander interventions, employers should take all steps necessary to ensure that they clear a path for those who wish to do so by making sure that the appropriate infrastructure is in place.

  1. Employers can make a difference

Although bystander intervention training is already available on many Canadian university and college campuses, our survey results suggest that this type of training could have a broader application and appeal.

In particular, survey respondents identified more training as the most important step that employers can take to improve and/or increase the quality and frequency of bystander interventions in the workplace.

This belief in the potential impact of bystander intervention training is echoed in the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s June 2017 Report of the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, which noted that bystander intervention training stood out as a type of training with “significant promise for preventing harassment in the workplace”.

Indeed, we are beginning to see evidence to back this up. Since, the Royal Canadian Air Force received bystander training as part of its Operation HONOUR initiative to eliminate harmful sexual behaviour in the Canadian military, that branch has seen a growth in the number of complaints received by bystanders to 17 per cent of reported incidents of inappropriate sexual behaviour.


For any employers who are convinced that their employees are too self-preservationist to intervene on behalf of their fellow co-workers to address workplace discrimination and harassment, these survey results suggests otherwise.

That said, employers cannot expect their employees to go it alone. In addition to encouragement and support for workplace bystanders, employers must provide the infrastructure and training necessary to empower them.

If you would like to learn more on this subject read here and here. For information on Rubin Thomlinson’s own Workplace Bystander Intervention Training visit here.

Megan Forward

About the Author: Toronto Employment Lawyer Megan Forward develops and delivers training sessions for her clients and conducts investigations and workplace assessments to help employers resolve issues related to harassment, poisoned workplace environments and bullying.