Bystander empowerment is a critical component of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives that empower employees to intervene when they witness discrimination, bias, or unfair treatment within the workplace. The objective is to create a culture where employees not only recognize the harmful behavior, but also actively participate in preventing it. This approach can lead to a more inclusive and equitable work environment.

Bystander empowerment equips individuals with the skills and confidence to stand up against discrimination and bias, whether subtle or overt. It encourages employees to become allies for their colleagues who may be experiencing unfair treatment based on their race, gender, age, sexual orientation, weight or any other characteristic.

I recall a time when I found myself in a challenging situation. Back then, I was young and inexperienced in the radio industry, and I was hesitant to voice my concerns out of fear that it might jeopardize my job security. This situation unfolded after I had been enduring racism from one of the employees for several years, and the management had consistently failed to take any action. However, a part-time reporter, who was simultaneously studying law, stepped in to support me. Within three hours of their intervention, the employee responsible for making my life difficult was dismissed, and the management extended their apologies to me.

Examples of Bystander Empowerment:

  1. Direct Intervention: In a meeting, if someone makes a derogatory comment about a colleague’s nationality or gender, a bystander can directly intervene by saying, “I don’t think that comment is appropriate, and it goes against our company’s values. Let’s keep the discussion respectful and focused on the topic.”
  2. Supportive Conversations: Sometimes, intervention can occur privately. If a coworker confides in you about experiencing microaggression or bias, you can offer emotional support and encouragement. You might say, “I’m sorry you had to go through that. You’re not alone, and I’m here to support you. If you’re comfortable, we can address this together with HR.”

When staff members fail or simply look the other way can be detrimental in several ways:

  1. Perpetuation of Discrimination and Bias: Without bystander intervention, discrimination and bias can continue unchecked. This can lead to hostile work environments where some employees feel unsafe, marginalized, or undervalued.
  2. Decreased Employee Morale: When employees witness discrimination or unfair treatment and feel powerless to do anything, it can erode morale. They may begin to question the organization’s commitment to DEI.
  3. Attrition and Loss of Talent: A failure to address discrimination and bias can lead to the departure of talented employees who feel unsupported and unwelcome. The loss of diverse perspectives can hinder innovation and progress.
  4. Legal and Reputational Risks: Failing to address discrimination and bias can expose organizations to legal and reputational risks. Lawsuits, negative media attention, and damage to the brand’s image can result from a lack of proactive intervention.
  5. Stagnation in DEI Efforts: Bystander intervention is a vital element in creating a culture of inclusivity. Without it, DEI initiatives are likely to remain stagnant, and the organization’s overall diversity and equity goals may go unmet.
  6. Missed Opportunities for Learning and Growth: When bystanders intervene and address issues of discrimination, it provides opportunities for the organization to learn from its mistakes and grow. Without intervention, these opportunities are lost, and harmful behavior continues unchecked.
  7. Impact on Productivity and Collaboration: An inclusive work environment fosters collaboration and innovation. When employees feel empowered to intervene, it can improve teamwork and overall productivity. The absence of intervention can hinder cooperation and creativity.

Bystander Empowerment/Intervention Training is a crucial element of any DEI program. It empowers employees to be active allies in the fight against discrimination and bias, fostering a more inclusive workplace. Failing to implement such training can result in numerous negative consequences, including the perpetuation of harmful behavior, decreased morale, legal and reputational risks, and missed opportunities for growth and learning. To promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, organizations must proactively invest in bystander intervention training and encourage a culture where employees stand up for one another.