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Be a Better Ally: What to Do When You Observe Harassment or Discrimination

I truly believe that having a healthy workplace culture is the way that we create better businesses, lead more productive lives, and can actually get the work we love out into the world. That is why I spend the majority of my time writing books, speaking, and coaching on how we can create and sustain them.

A question I am frequently asked on this topic is “what do I do when I see something that seems inappropriate at work? Is it my job to step in and try to stop it? And, how do I know if it’s really inappropriate or a problem for the person/people involved?”

This will often be followed up with “I really don’t want to make things worse… so, what if I’m not sure what to do? Or, I end up doing something and that actually makes it worse?”

Those types of questions are the ones that cripple us, and the reason we so often end up doing nothing. We don’t step in and nothing actually changes.

I had this experience when I was an associate attorney in a law office. We had a law clerk and one of the partners was just kind of rude to him. One day, we were sitting in a conference room and the law clerk said something that resulted in the partner making fun of the way he had said it. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but it was something like, “did you swallow your tongue?” I just remember that it was so rude. And, at that moment, I thought “I’m just sitting here, watching this younger attorney be hazed, and I didn’t do anything.”

Then, I just kept thinking about it… to the point that I was like “you know what? I need to decide ahead of time how I’m going to respond when I see that type of thing, because I don’t want to tolerate unacceptable behavior in my workplace--even if the law clerk was fine with it.” So, I came up with a plan. And, the next time it happened all I said was “whoa, hazing.” The partner got so uncomfortable and was like “no, no. We’re all friends here.” It was as if he didn’t consciously see how his behavior was rude until I called it out and then he felt uncomfortable about it and could see it.

If we want things to change, we need to be willing to speak up. It’s as simple, and as difficult as that.

So back to the questions that keep us stuck. How do we know if someone else is uncomfortable and whether the situation really is a problem? Furthermore, is my pointing it out going to make it worse?

Here’s my take on that: any kind of harassment or discrimination that you observe, any type of behavior that you don’t want to tolerate or feel is wrong, inappropriate, or offensive, you have the right and responsibility to call out. Because, ultimately, the only thing you are deciding and taking action on is the type of behavior that you want to tolerate.

So, what are some things you can do to intervene in a way that won’t make the situation worse? There is a system called the 4 D’s of Bystander Intervention that is a great place to start. (I’m always a little reluctant to provide a systematic process for how to respond because I do think there are nuances and we should always listen to ourselves first… listen to what we want to tolerate in our workplaces and come up with our own response that is natural to and works for us. But, having knowledge of some of the available tools is helpful).

The 4 D’s of Bystander Intervention are: direct, distract, delegate, and delay.

First up, we’ll take a look at direct. Direct means you can make a direct intervention in the situation. You can step in and directly address the behavior and/or redirect the attention to yourself, and away from the person being targeted. What I did with the law clerk, mentioned above, was direct. I said, “whoa, hazing,” which was directly addressing the issue and the energy away from the clerk and onto myself. But, it was also encountering the situation in a more confrontational way than many people are comfortable with. So, if that’s you at the moment, the next tactic may be a better fit to start out with.

The next D: distract. Distract is useful if you don’t want to confront the issue directly but would like to focus the attention on something else. Distract means you, basically, say “What in the world could that be? Let’s totally change the topic so that it’s not weird anymore.” And, you just move the energy away from the person who’s being targeted on to a completely different topic (by distracting the harasser).

The third D is delegate. Delegate means that you go to someone who has authority in the situation and seek their help. For instance, if you’re in a restaurant (a lot of women experience predatory behavior from men in a restaurant) and you’re observing a harassing situation, you can go to the manager and ask them to intervene rather than doing it yourself. This is true in the workplace too. Often, you can go to HR and ask that someone in authority step in, rather than directly confronting the harasser on your own.

Finally, the fourth D: delay. Delay is when you respond to something after the fact. Take the situation with that law clerk, for instance. I decided I wasn’t okay with how things went down. But, decided to go ahead and directly confront the situation the next time it arose. Another choice I could have made was to delay my response--by going to the law clerk afterwards and saying something like “Hey, was that okay? How did you feel about that? I just wanted to check in with you.” This lets the person that is being targeted know that you observed the behavior, that it’s okay if it was not okay with them, and allows you to have a response in the future that is in accordance with what they want/respects their wishes and is comfortable to them.

These four D’s are the tactics you can use if you see something that you know is wrong, or is harassment, and you would like to do something to intervene.

Now, let’s move on to potential obstacles. The biggest obstacle I often see is hesitation.

I was recently doing Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy workbook. And, it actually ended up being kind of a hard process for me. Even though I had asked myself all of the questions before, it ended up being hard because I kept having this resistance around really identifying the ways that white supremacy plays out in my environment. I noticed myself not wanting to see it or blame myself for a systematic problem that we are all involved in. I kept having all of this angst over it, like “I do call out racism when I see it but I’m probably not doing enough. Maybe I need to hop onto everyone’s social media pages and call out all the racism that I see? But, that doesn’t feel right, or very effective.”

Until I realized what I could do is be grateful for the workbook and it raising these questions that I am on the side of and agree with. For instance, I agree that we should all examine our participation in white supremacy. And, I’m so grateful to have these questions out there that I can ruminate on, and know that I am always on the side of fairness and equality, not on the side of white supremacy. If I can be grateful that these questions are out there, that someone like Layla Saad is asking them, and that I can grapple with them in my own mind, then I am on the side of solving the problem.

Similarly, with harassment--or anything, really--we want to be on the side of solving the problem, whatever it is.

If you are identifying a problem for yourself, it doesn’t have to mean that the victim you’re seeing is identifying the same problem. You are identifying behavior in your environment that you don’t want to tolerate.

To keep those lines clear, the question you always want to be asking yourself is: are you trying to save someone else or are you trying to maintain a safe environment for yourself? Any time you are trying to save someone else you are kind of in their business, and so you will want to check in with them around that. Because, often, we don’t really need someone else to save us, right? But, if you are maintaining the kind of safe environment you want to tolerate for yourself, then you can take responsibility for the intervention you want to make.

For instance, let’s take yelling in the workplace. Yelling doesn’t really bother me that much. But, I know it does bother a lot of other people, so that is a place where I may want to step in--when I know it’s distracting and not effective for someone else.

So, what I would do in that situation is figure out a way to empower the person who is being bothered by the yelling. You want to be on the side of empowering them, not on the side of stepping in as savior and empowering yourself. You already have the power in that situation, so you want to go ahead and offer some to the person being bothered. You want to offer validity to their position and align yourself with them so they know that they’re in a safe environment and can step up.

What you want to avoid is asking yourself “is this reasonable for this person to be afraid in this situation?” And, instead, ask the more helpful question of “how can I align with and empower them so they don’t have to feel afraid, and can let it go?”

A lot of times, what we do is think “I’m not afraid of that guy so no one should be afraid of that guy,” and that’s just not how human brains work. We all have varying triggers and fears, and they are all reasonable, based on our experiences and history. You may not know why someone is afraid of something you’re not, but it’s enough that they are afraid. And, that’s the place to empower the person to make a shift.

Another thing we do to minimize, is say “well, it’s not that big of a deal.” I hate that phrase and think it creates an enormous amount of chaos in the world. We use it as an excuse for apathy and resignation, and an ever-available way to justify our thinking and current circumstances. “Well, it’s not really that big of a deal…”

Instead, what we should be asking ourselves is: “What if I cared about this? What if I loved these people? What if I wanted to bring safety to this situation? What would that look like? What if it really is a big deal?”

We can always find a reason why anything is not that big of a deal, but that is just not the way we change society or make a shift when it comes to things like harassment and discrimination.

Another thing you can do is ask yourself: “How would I respond to this situation if I was watching children interact? How would I intervene then?” This helps us identify where we are holding ourselves back because of our own fear, what other people will think about us, or how they’ll respond to us keeping our environment safe.

Another thing to ask yourself goes back to motive and intention… What if the person being targeted with the behavior doesn’t have a problem with it? What if they feel totally fine about it… does that make it okay to you? Everybody has varying behavior they are willing to tolerate or not. You get to decide your own. So, ultimately, it doesn’t really matter if the person being targeted is feeling victimized or not if it is something you want to call out and make an impact on. But, this is an area you want to be clear on before making the intervention. Know what you want to expect from your environment and proceed accordingly.

We all want to have workplaces that feel safe and productive, where we can get our work done, and create an impact in the world. So, the final questions I want to leave you with are: “What do you want to expect from your environment? How can you take action? And, what is holding you back from creating the exact work environment you’d like to have?”


If you know someone who is unhappy at work, encourage them to check out our free mini-training Introduction to Power Dynamics. In 3 short videos, we share an overview of the process we’ve seen make our clients the most successful. Get free access here.

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