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Ombuds and Bystanding: Embracing Influence



By virtue of their formal organizational and professional roles, Ombuds are key organizational influencers. They are empowered to comment on what they see and hear and are viewed as highly credible reporters. As a result, Ombuds are well positioned to identify specific issues that need to be addressed and to develop and explore options with others as to how to respond. Beyond these formal roles, Ombuds are also organizational members and thus, have responsibilities and influence as fellow community members. In this article, I argue for Ombuds to explore and leverage the variety of possibilities available to them for constructive engagement. To open up these possibilities, I offer the metaphor of "ombudsman as bystander". Utilizing the Bystander Decision-making Model, I identify key influences on people's decision to engage and offer specific strategies and resources to build the efficacy of organizational members to be constructive and active bystanders. By more fully understanding bystanding, Ombuds expand their own effectiveness as bystanders and organizational influences. They are also better prepared to help other organizational members embrace their own influence and power..
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Ombuds and Bystanding: Embracing Influence
By virtue of their formal organizational and
professional roles, Ombuds are key
organizational influencers. They are
empowered to comment on what they see
and hear and are viewed as highly credible
reporters. As a result, Ombuds are well
positioned to identify specific issues that
need to be addressed and to develop and
explore options with others as to how to
respond. Beyond these formal roles,
Ombuds are also organizational members
and thus, have responsibilities and influence
as fellow community members. In this article,
I argue for Ombuds to explore and leverage
the variety of possibilities available to them
for constructive engagement and influence.
To open up these possibilities, I offer the
metaphor of “Ombuds as bystander”.
Utilizing the Bystander Decision-making
Model, I identify key influences on people’s
decision to engage and offer specific
strategies and resources to build the efficacy
of organizational members to be constructive
and active bystanders. By more fully
understanding bystanding, Ombuds expand
their own effectiveness as bystanders and
organizational influencers. They are also
better prepared to help other organizational
members embrace their own influence and
power as active and constructive bystanders.
The author is grateful to the IOA for the
opportunity to explore the ideas in this
article through a keynote address at the
2017 annual meeting. The author wishes to
acknowledge the thoughtful and insightful
comments provided by the anonymous
reviewers, which enriched and focused this
article. The author also expresses deep
gratitude to Erica Shannon for her sharp
editorial suggestions, which greatly
enhanced the quality of the article.
bystander, bystander decision-making,
influence, hostile workplace behavior,
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As I was thinking about what I could offer to Ombuds in this article, I read Wayne Blair’s (2017)
article on reimagining the organizational ombudsman’s role and Shannon Burton’s (2017) piece
on Planned Happenstance Theory. What struck me was they were asking Ombuds to embrace
not only their formal organizational role (informal, neutral, independent, and confidential) but also
more broadly their place as a member of the organizational community; as someone who works
there. Both articles expressed concerns that there may be times when Ombuds are so focused
on being Ombuds that they forget or minimize their role and place as a member of a dynamic
community where members’ very presence influences what happens. Thus, while Ombuds have
a specific set of responsibilities articulated in the formal structure of the organization, Ombuds
also have responsibilities as fellow community members, specifically, accountability for one’s
behavior and duty of care for others in the organizational community.
To enhance and broaden possibilities for engagement and influence, I offer the perspective of the
Ombuds as bystander. Specifically, I will talk about bystanding as influence and how Ombuds
are ideally positioned as the ultimate active and constructive bystanders. I will then overview what
is known about the why and how of bystanding. I will share some thoughts about how Ombuds
can leverage their formal role to facilitate fellow organizational members to honor and embrace
their “bystanderness” in active and constructive ways; to utilize the power of their presence for
good. In the process of talking about helping others, I encourage Ombuds to place themselves as
“the other” and reflect on the ways they can more fully embrace their power as bystanders and
expand their ability to influence.
Ombuds are bystanders by virtue of their official presence. Ombuds are uniquely positioned to
“be there”, to be observers and to be aware. Ombuds “see” and “hear” what is happening by
being the person to whom others can bring what they see and hear. Others tell Ombuds about
their experiences, often describing their own and the other’s behaviors. The Ombuds has now
become a bystander. Others tell Ombuds about their own bystanding; what they were aware of
others doing or saying. At this moment, the Ombuds is a “bystander of bystanders” (Rowe, 2018).
In addition, Ombuds review and consider policies and procedures, the written embodiment of
organizational mission and values, and see the connection to, or gap with, practice. Most broadly,
Ombuds are repositories for organizational happenings and uniquely positioned to make
connections and see patterns in the data. Ombuds also “see” and “hear” as members of the
organizational community, i.e., an employee. These experiences are also data about what is
happening (or not) in the organizational environment. Thus, Ombuds are present and (very)
aware of organizational life and members’ experiences in ways others in the organization are not.
In terms of influence, Ombuds are empowered by their organizational and professional roles to
comment on what they see and hear. Ombuds are viewed as highly credible reporters. As a
result, Ombuds are well positioned to identify specific issues that need to be addressed and to
develop and explore options with others as to how to respond, whether that is the individual who
comes into the office or the CEO. The metaphor of the mirror captures this aspect of being an
Ombuds. Mirrors reflect and provide the opportunity to correct. As Ombuds share what they have
learned, they are reflecting the current status of organizational life and providing the opportunity
for the organization to make “corrections”. Ombuds themselves may implement some
“corrections”. For example, Ombuds train, educate, “look into the matter”, facilitate, connect, and
perform shuttle diplomacy and informal mediation. All of these activities influence people’s
experiences and the situation. Thus, Ombuds are already active and constructive bystanders. So
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what more could I be suggesting Ombuds do? By more fully understanding bystanding, I think
Ombuds may expand their own options, enhancing their own effectiveness as bystanders and
organizational members. With this deepened understanding and experience, Ombuds will then be
better prepared to help organizational members embrace their own influence and develop
efficacy as active and constructive bystanders.
The term “bystander” conjures up the image of the passive witness, who is present at, or
becomes aware of, a situation but does not take action. This image is problematic for two
reasons. First, it implicitly equates “no action” with “no influence”. Being present in a situation
where someone is behaving in a hostile or demeaning manner to another, and not taking an
action, i.e., simply “being there”, can be interpreted by the actor, the target, and others as
supportive of what is happening and ensure the continuance of the engagement. Second, it is
rare that bystanders are not doing something. Indeed, violence, aggression, incivility and myriad
other undesirable behaviors are socially constructed and supported phenomena, i.e., “others” are
involved in developing and sustaining them. For example, bystanders are viewed as active and
involved participants in the social architecture of school violence (Twemlow et al, 2013),
workplace bullying (Namie & Lutgen-Sandvik, 2010) and incivility (Hershcovis et al, 2017). In
organizations, coworkers and supervisors can be active or passive accomplices in the
development and continuance of problematic interactions. They can also be active in disruption
and resolution of problematic interactions (McMahon & Banyard, 2012; Paull et al, 2012; Scully &
Rowe, 2009).
In order to facilitate people embracing and constructively utilizing their influence, Ombuds need to
understand how bystanders decide to take action, and specifically what gets in their way.
Grounded in extensive empirical research, social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley
(Latané & Darley, 1970) developed a five-stage model of bystander decision-making regarding
intervention. The first stage is noticing that something has happened; the second is assessing
whether it is a problem requiring action; the third is acknowledging responsibility for taking action;
the fourth is choosing the action(s); and the last is taking the action(s). This framework has
guided the development of bystander efficacy training for decades (e.g., Ashburn-Nardo et al,
2008; Banyard, 2015; Scully & Rowe, 2009). Understanding the turning points individuals face on
this path illuminates ways Ombuds can help people make informed and thoughtful decisions
about when and how to become involved constructively (Feldman et al 2016 EEO).
In this section, I will utilize Latané and Darley’s model to describe the decisions that bystanders
face and the factors that influence people’s thinking on the path to taking or not taking action. I
will share examples of strategies focused on addressing those influences that I have found useful
for myself and in helping others. I have provided additional resources at the end of this article as
well. Ombuds may find these strategies useful in facilitating other organizational members
“bystanderness” and in supporting the development of collective will and efficacy to address
emerging issues. Ombuds can also apply these ideas to themselves as an organizational
member to more fully embrace their influence. While the illustrations below will focus on
addressing unacceptable or problematic behaviour, bystanders can also respond to and promote
positive and constructive behaviour (Rowe, 2018).
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If someone does not “see” or is not aware of the situation or behavior, they will not take action.
There are two preconditions to noticing a situation or interaction. First, the person has to be
present (physically, virtually, or through learning from others), providing the opportunity to notice.
Second, the situation or interaction needs to be captivating or “out of the ordinary”. Behaviors
and interactions that occur repetitively and are unchallenged become normalized or ordinary so
that people do not “see” them anymore (Scully & Rowe, 2009).
People are more likely to “notice” when the behaviour or situation contravenes norms or
expectations for behaviour. There are multiple sources of norms including personal/moral (e.g.,
Golden Rule, deontic justice), professional (ethics and codes of conduct), and organizational
(vision, mission, values). Norms-in-practice, however, are often implicit and co-created in our
interactions. Through responses to different situations at work, employees communicate what is
okay and what is not (Scully & Rowe, 2009). At the organizational level, what is stated in policy
and what actually happens or is enforced may be different. Ombuds are often keenly aware of the
An important proactive strategy is explicit articulation of norms. It is important to engage
organizational members in explicit discussions of guiding principles and values and the specific
norms and expectations for conduct, which make these principles and values manifest. A
beautiful example of this type of work is the Department Communication Protocol, developed by
Larry Hoover (2003) and refined by Ombuds Tom Sebok (2014).
Another approach is education about and identification of problematic behaviors. In the work
on bystander training for sexual assault, a critical element for mobilizing people to action is to
broaden people’s definition of what is encompassed by the term “sexual assault”, including what
appears to be seemingly low risk behaviour (McMahon & Banyard, 2012). I find this to be true for
bystander action to prevent workplace bullying and aggression. Seemingly small acts of incivility
can escalate to bolder and more direct hostile action such as bullying. A useful visual depiction of
such behaviors is displayed in Cynthia Clark’s (2013) Continuum of Incivility. Sharing the
empirical research on the types and prevalence of behaviors that are found in organizations can
fill in the details of this continuum with specific behavioral exemplars.
Another engaging strategy to identify problematic behavior is to ask people how they know
someone does or does not value them. People can articulate those “small”, seemingly “everyday”
behaviors that communicate a powerful message. For example, Jane Dutton and her colleagues
(Dutton, Debebe, & Wrzesniewski, 2012) asked hospital cleaners about their experiences with
others at the hospital, specifically their experience of being valued or not valued. Behaviors by
others that communicated that the cleaner’s work, and by extension, the cleaner, was not
important included people not acknowledging their presence in shared space, not moving out of a
cleaner’s way when they were trying to work, speaking in a condescending tone to them, or
making a mess of an area that had just been cleaned without apology. These are behaviors that
many people have done yet have been unaware of the impact (Dutton et al, 2012). This activity
can be done one-on-one or with an intact group.
Another way people can be made to “notice” behaviors is when someone brings it to their
attention. Once people have been in an organization for a while they get used to things. It is
usually the outsider or newbie who points out a pattern or behaviors others no longer see, e.g.,
why did he do that? Or “hey, that was mean!” Or “tell them to stop that!I encourage Ombuds to
become observers of their own workplaces and of themselves, specifically to be mindful and
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curious about “what we do”. One way to do that is to take on the perspective of the “outsider” and
how that person would characterize “what we do here”. For example, Ombuds can imagine
themselves as someone from another country or another planet even! It is amazing how taking an
“outsider” perspective makes the invisible, visible, the unnoticed, noticeable.
Ombuds can also talk to the newest person in the organization and ask about their experience
and what they see. Even talking with someone from another unit about how things work in their
unit can illuminate differences in experiences. For example, I developed a fresh perspective on
my academic department and my colleagues after I worked on a committee with representatives
from other departments. As I listened to their stories of department life, I realized that I had been
assuming that other departments were as positive and constructive as mine. As a result of the
external exposure, I became more sensitized to why my department was successful and thus,
was more aware when my department began to head in a less constructive direction.
Once a person has oriented to the behavior or situation, they need to discern whether what they
see is a problem and thus requiring action. Bystanders are more likely to see a situation as a
“problem” if they perceive negative impact or harm. This harm can occur at the individual level
and/or at a group level. For example, a colleague stops talking after being interrupted or is
looking fearful when the boss raises his/her voice. If the colleague shows no noticeable response
or smiles, bystanders are less likely to perceive harm and thus, not see this as problem that is in
need of action. In terms of group level harm or potential for harm, faculty may perceive risk to
academic freedom if a colleague is fired for speaking their mind.
The challenge with incivility, aggression, and bullying is that the harmful impact is felt in the
persistence and patterning of behaviors rather than a single behaviour itself. In isolation, a
specific behaviour may not look like much. If the bystander is not privy to the series of behaviors,
they may not perceive impact or may underestimate the significance or severity of the harm.
Sharing information about the patterned and progressive nature of problematic behaviors and
their cumulative impact is valuable as it highlights how seemingly minor or covert behaviors can
harm. The Workplace Bullying and Trauma Institute has a negative conduct and impact
continuum that concisely illustrates this (
violence). The work on the impact of ostracism and exclusion (Williams, 2007) and on
microaggressions (Sue, 2010) is a powerful illustration of the cumulative impact of “small things”.
Bystanders are also more likely to perceive harm if they believe the actor intended to create
harm. Unfortunately, due to the seemingly minor nature of the individual behaviors, it is difficult to
discern the intention behind the behavior. For example, not acknowledging someone in the
hallway could be an oversight (she didn’t see them) or a deliberate slight. A strategy to help
bystanders assess whether the situation requires action is to educate bystanders on how to
determine intention. Research on how observers discern that something is unfair and thus in
need of action provides some insight (Skarlicki & Kulik, 2004). People make fairness judgments
based on considering what the implications would be if the actor behaved differently, i.e.,
counterfactual thinking. Specifically, the observer is considering three questions (what I call the
“woulda, coulda, shoulda”):
1. Would the outcome/impact have been different if another behavior had been used?
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2. Could the actor have behaved differently? This involves discernment of intentional action
(how the actor accounts/justifies their action) as well as considerations of whether the
target did something to create this situation.
3. Should the actor have behaved differently? Has there been a norm violation? This is tied
to beliefs about normative behavior and responsibility, which I discussed above.
When a person concludes that the actor could and should have behaved differently, they are
more likely to view the action as unfair and thus in need of redress (Parzefall & Salin, 2010).
A challenge is that fairness judgments happen rapidly and often below conscious awareness. It is
important for people to explicitly state what they consider when making a judgment, so they can
proceed thoughtfully and deliberately. A useful exercise for Ombuds is to apply these questions to
the presenting situation in the case of one-on-one coaching or representative scenarios if doing in
a group. In the process of doing this, people realize why they consider something unfair or
problematic. For example, what behavioral options were not taken or what norms have been
violated? Using this strategy, bystanders may also realize an action they initially deemed harmful
was actually necessary, e.g., the constructive delivery of negative feedback in a performance
review. They may also discover that they do not have the information to make a discernment
about the actor’s intention but can identify what they need to learn in order to do so. For example,
they may choose to continue observing the people involved.
This exercise can have an interesting benefit when intact groups, such as team or unit members,
work on clarifying why a particular interaction or behavior is unfair or problematic. As they explore
this together, they are also in effect talking with each other at a meta-communication level about
what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior, which can be woven into a discussion of explicit
norms (see above).
Beyond their use in the above activity, these “woulda, coulda, shoulda” questions could form a
handy “fairness checklist” that people could use more proactively and systematically to assess
situations in their daily work lives. The notion of a “fairness checklist” is not new to Ombuds. For
example, administrative fairness checklists for decision makers have been developed by Ombuds
at some Canadian universities to facilitate deliberative and inclusive administrative decision-
making (see ;
.pdf )
This is a key pivot point for bystanders in embracing and directing their influence. If an individual
sees it as their responsibility to intentionally influence, they are more likely to do so. Assuming
responsibility concerns obligations to help.
Obligation is grounded in social bonds and associated expectations. These bonds can be
personal (friendship, family, neighbors), professional (coworkers, team members, organizational
members), or broader social bonds (social group membership such as race, gender, religion,
being human). When an individual is in a meaningful relationship with one or both parties, then
relational norms come into play. For example, the drunk driving campaign message “Friends
don’t let friends drive drunk” reflects the ethic of care in friendship and the obligation that friends
help friends (Ad Council 2017). In the workplace, teamwork obligates team members to be there
for and to help each other. In the military, “no soldier left behind” speaks to this obligation to help.
The obligation to respond may be explicitly part of one’s job description, as with supervisors.
Organizational policy may articulate the obligation to help each other. There are also broader
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moral obligations to engage reflected in religious values, such as the Christian ethic of “love thy
There are two goals for this part of the decision-making path: 1) discuss collective norms
regarding responsibility to help and 2) discuss how individual and collective responding can
manage a situation, i.e., how influence works.
Regarding collective responsibility, I find it helpful to share a variety of statements or illustrations
of collective responsibility. Here are some very visible exemplars of collective responsibility:
"If You See Something, Say Something™" campaign, originally implemented
and trademarked by the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is licensed
to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as a nationwide campaign
(; O’Haver, 2016). Versions of this
mantra are part of university campus campaigns regarding sexual violence, alcohol
abuse and other risky behaviors (e.g., Banyard, 2015; GreenDot Bystander Intervention
“What would you do?” or WWYD, a long-running ABC News program anchored by John
Quiñones, sets up public situations where actors engage in conflict, illegal activity or
mistreatment and records what people actually do.
( The bystanders are then asked about why
they chose to take action or not. This is a rich set of video resources that can be used
with groups for discussion of both problematic behaviors and what motivated people to
take responsibility for action.
Another strategy is to have people discuss when they helped and when they did not and why.
The discussion that results from this sharing often reveals (assumed) normative obligations.
Storytelling regarding taking responsibility can be useful at this point as well. I share stories that
show fellow coworkers influencing situations by taking responsibility. A favorite example is
nurses managing the behavior of physicians who were abusive through the practice of “code
pink” (Sullivan, 2011). Briefly, any nurse who sees another nurse being mistreated by a physician
rallies other nurses by calling “code pink” and the location of the incident over the public address
system. Any nurse who can shows up at the location and stands in silence beside the nurse
being mistreated. Another example is the administrative assistant who monitors the boss’ mood.
The assistant then lets others know whether it is a good time or not to approach, demonstrating a
gatekeeping function.
There are also very pragmatic reasons for why people should take responsibility. First, the
perspective of the bystander as observer is perceived as more credible than targets or actors. As
a result, higher ups or those in a position to foster change will take the bystander more seriously
and thus be more likely to respond (Skarlicki & Kulik, 2004). Second, the bystander is more likely
to be viewed positively for taking action in a situation as opposed to “standing by” (Dickter et al,
2012). Third, research indicates that by taking action, others will mobilize and help as well
(Fischer et al, 2011). Finally, bystanders are impacted by what others are doing, even if it is not
directed at them, i.e., bystander stress. Witnesses experience similar harm and stress as a result
of exposure (Vartia, 2001). Thus, if only for their own sake, bystanders need to take some kind of
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Once a bystander has decided they have a responsibility to act, they need to figure out what they
can do. The selection of action depends on knowing the actions that are possible given the
specific context. Choosing from among these options is influenced by the bystander’s goals and
the perceived benefits and risks for those involved, including risks to the bystander (Keashly,
2019). This section is very detailed because, as with the decision of accepting responsibility,
choosing the action is another key pivot point in bystander engagement.
Identifying action possibilities
Often, there is an assumption that whatever action is taken, it has to be bold, dramatic and thus,
risky. In some cases, that might be true such as pushing someone out of the way of a speeding
car. However, more often than not, small often covert actions can have a notable influence,
creating the space for the problematic dynamic or interaction to shift (Scully & Rowe, 2009). For
example, making eye contact with a colleague who is being reprimanded to show support, or
communicating disapproval nonverbally to the actor, or keeping someone away from another
person can shift the situation. Many of these actions are things people know how to do and in
fact, do them (e.g., Keashly & Neuman, 2013). In essence, any action can make a difference.
The challenge then for bystanders is to develop a picture of the range of possibilities for action.
Making the choice
Once a person is aware of the possible actions, the choices need to be narrowed down. The
choice of action depends upon the bystander’s goals (desired outcomes or benefits) and
perceived risk.
Goals (desired outcomes or benefits). Table 1 includes possible goals or desired
outcomes for bystander action (Keashly, 2019). Some actions are more or less likely to help
achieve the desired goal. For example, if the goal is to name an inappropriate behavior so that it
is not ignored, relevant actions include naming the behavior directly (“let’s not call each other
names”), invoking group norms (“that is not how we are here”), or confronting the actor, all of
which communicate the unacceptability of the behavior and affirm the group norms. A common
goal or desire is to prevent or stop harm, which can be accomplished in a number of different
ways. A direct action would be confronting the actor and telling them to stop, which can be done
in public or in private. A bystander responding to a putdown of another in a meeting could affirm
the target in an effort to offset harm. The bystander may want to prevent the actor from engaging
in harmful behavior that could risk the actor’s social face. Distraction as an immediate strategy
could disrupt the behavior, providing an opportunity to engage with the actor later and talk about
their behavior.
Table 1: Goals for bystander action
Name/identify inappropriate behaviour, so it is not ignored or glossed over
Uphold a community norm/value: making clear that this behaviour is not supported in this
Communicate that the behaviour is unacceptable without embarrassing the offending
person; save face
Phrase concern/give feedback in a way that the offending person is able to hear without
being defensive
Create an opening for discussion
Protect someone from being hurt/offended or prevent further injury
Protect someone else from causing harmsomething they may regret!
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Tension between people may be due to miscommunication: an open dialogue may
eliminate misunderstanding
Surface a concern that has been festering to prevent escalation into conflict or violence
Express personal values of the bystander
Enable an upset person to take a rational view of the situation
Get help from someone better placed to intervene/has the skill or capacity to handle
Make those responsible for the unit know what is going on
Adapted from: MIT Ombuds Office (2004); White & Malkowski (2013).
Risk assessment. As noted above, there are various actions that could achieve a specific
goal. Choosing among those actions involves considering the risks and benefits of each action.
Being visible and public such as naming the behavior or confronting the actor carries a certain
amount of risk. Personal risk includes retaliation and becoming the next target, which sadly is not
an unrealistic fear. Social risk includes fear of embarrassing oneself (evaluation apprehension),
disrupting one’s own relationship with the actor, and the potential stigma of being associated with
a disliked target (Mulder et al, 2014; Nelson et al, 2011). The degree to which these risks
influence a bystander’s choice is affected by their relative power in the situation. Higher power
bystanders assume less personal and social risk and are more likely to engage directly. For
example, Ombuds are empowered by the organization to comment on what they see or hear
about in more public and direct ways. Faculty in universities may feel more empowered to engage
if they are tenured and at less risk for retaliation. If perceived risk is high, people may choose
more low involvement action (MacCurtain et al, 2017; McDonald et al, 2016), allowing the
bystander to shield themselves from drawing unwanted attention. Yet even these less visible
actions carry risk as they may be viewed as “inaction”. The target may experience this as getting
no support; the actor as getting support (silence is consent) and other bystanders looking for cues
on what to do may assume nothing needs to or can be done.
The risk of taking no action is also important to explore. Taking no action is not a no-cost
alternative (Skarlicki & Kulik, 2004). The potential costs include the bystander’s sense of self as a
caring person (would a caring person NOT do something?), their relationship with the target (e.g.,
sense of betrayal), and the potential for de-sensitization to harmful actions and for contributing to
the development of tolerance for such actions in the community.
The number of possible actions is enormous and thus, can be overwhelming for an individual to
consider. There are several action frameworks that attempt to make the options more
manageable. These models provide handy action acronyms that a bystander can recall in a
moment. Ombuds may find these useful in working with individuals in exploring their options or in
training larger groups.
The 4Ds of Bystander Action Model (see GreenDot Bystander Intervention Program)
captures four broad action strategies: Direct (step in to stop the behavior), Distract (the
target or actor), Delegate (get someone else), and Delay (check in, support the other). A
5th D Document (record incident as it happens) - has recently been added
( This mnemonic has been used in training college students
in how to intervene in the risky behavior of fellow students (Banyard, 2015; D’Enbeau,
Berkowitz’s (2009) ResponsAbility model highlights three broad action strategies:
Confront (deal directly with the behavior and the person); Shift focus (through distracting,
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diverting, deflecting or reframing) and Shifting the person (work to change their attitudes
that undergird their behavior).
Ury’s (2000) The Third Side framework is inherently about bystanders. It identifies 10
roles for preventing and intervening in conflict. I find this framework useful for people to
visualize the various roles they could take on as community members based on their own
inclinations and skills and the status of the conflict. The Third Side website is a very rich
resource of case studies and teaching materials (
Another framework I have found useful is Bowes-Sperry and O’Leary-Kelly’s (2005) model that
categorizes bystander actions in terms of Immediacy (when to act, i.e., in the moment or after
the fact) and Involvement (visibility of the action, i.e., in or out of public view). As can be seen in
Table 2, crossing these dimensions reveals an array of specific actions. I find this framework
helpful in broadening people’s ideas of what is “action” and giving specific examples of those
actions. Many of these actions are well within people’s current repertoires, i.e., “naturally
occurring” (Rowe, 2018). Of particular note, is the inclusion of nonverbals and body language as
action. These actions are relatively covert and thus, low risk for a bystander yet they can have a
powerful impact. The “involvement dimension is particularly instructive for bystanders as it
illustrates that there are actions that can be undertaken that are less visible or “below detection”,
which may be important if the bystander is concerned about backlash or negative evaluation.
Indeed, research shows that people prefer low involvement or less visible action initially
(MacCurtain, Murphy, O'Sullivan, MacMahon, & Turner, 2018; McDonald, Charlesworth &
Graham, 2016).
Table 2: Potential bystander actions
High Immediacy-Low Involvement
Redirect actor from situation
Remove target from situation
Interrupt the incident
Change the topic/focus
Ask clarifying questions
Affirm the target counter image
Use body language to show
disapproval, e.g., silent stare
Process observation
High Immediacy-High Involvement
Tell actor to stop conduct
Name or acknowledge offense or
Publicly encourage target to report
Get others to publicly denounce
Offer another interpretation
Reinforce group norms
Low Immediacy-Low Involvement
Talk to target about experience
Privately advise target to avoid actor
Talk privately to the actor
Covertly keep actor away from target
Advise target to report incident
Refuse to share gossip/rumors
Low Immediacy-High Involvement
Report actor formally admin,
Accompany target when reports
Coach target in responding
Confront actor after incident
Work to develop/implement policies
Build the business case
Gather more information
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Adapted from: Bowes-Sperry & O’Leary-Kelly (2005) and MIT Ombuds Office
Using brief scenarios of problematic behaviors is a good context for identifying different actions
that could be applied and what to consider in choosing among them. This helps people visualize
what is possible. As an illustration, I utilize the following example from the MIT Ombuds bystander
Example: A coworker makes a joke involving an offensive stereotype during a meeting
In the moment (high immediacy)
Use body language to show disapproval (low involvement)
o Frown, clear throat, wide-eyed surprised look, get up and leave
Ask a clarifying question (low involvement)
o What do you mean by that?
Name or acknowledge the offense (high involvement)
o That was harsh/rude/offensive!
After the incident (low immediacy)
Talk privately to the actor (low involvement)
o I know you well enough to know you don’t mean it, but someone could take
offense or feel hurt
Report the actor (High involvement)
Choosing among the actions means considering the goal(s) for intervening and the risks for
each action that addresses that goal. Using the situation above, if the bystander’s goal is to affirm
norms of the community, the actions of showing disapproval nonverbally or naming and
acknowledging the offense could address that goal. Choosing between these actions will depend
upon the bystander’s perception of risk to themselves of taking the action. For example,
nonverbal disapproval may be perceived as a less risky action than publically labeling the
offense, a much more visible action. Labeling the offense also calls out the actor in a way that
could threaten their social face, making them more likely to be defensive. In discerning risk, the
bystander needs to assess their relative power vis a vis the actor. In this situation, a supervisor
may not view the public labeling of the offense as particularly risky or that they could withstand
the actor’s response, given it is part of their job to monitor and evaluate their subordinate’s
Before leaving this section on action choices, it is important to note that sometimes multiple
actions may be needed to achieve the bystander’s desired goal(s). These could occur
simultaneously or sequentially. For example, in the situation of the hostile comment by one
colleague to another, the bystander may take action to disrupt the interaction to prevent or reduce
harm (e.g., suggest that this is not the forum for these discussions) and then follow up with the
actor and/or target regarding what happened and possibly exploring alternative strategies for
addressing the situation.
Once potential actions have been discerned, they have to be implemented. This is another point
at which people can get bogged down. The skills needed depend upon the action(s) chosen.
Some actions are relatively simple to enact such as making eye contact to show support for the
target or changing the topic from the problematic one. Others are more complex in terms of the
skills required and the sequencing of actions. A particularly challenging one is confronting the
actor as doing so involves communicating a clear message while also anticipating and mitigating
possible negative impact such as defensiveness and retaliation. The actual confrontation is often
not just one statement but also responding to and managing the actor’s reaction.
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Effective engagement in action hinges on the individual’s confidence in determining “what” is
required and the “how” of enactment. Skill and confidence comes through practice. The following
are tools and activities that I have found helpful for myself and in working with others.
Core skills model of communication (Bolton, 1986). Bolton’s model breaks down the key
communication skills (active listening, assertion and problem-solving) involved in
managing conflict generally and confrontation specifically. He then illustrates how they
interweave in managing conflicts of interests/needs and conflicts of values.
Mini-scripts or “backpocket phrases”. These are very specific actions that can be
memorized and drawn upon very quickly. For example, if the goal is to clarify the
situation, a phrase like “what do you mean by that?” spoken with an inquiring tone is
useful. As noted earlier, many behaviors are ambiguous in terms of content and intent.
This phrase allows the opportunity for additional information to be shared that may
influence what the bystander and others are “seeing”. It also creates space for
determining what subsequent actions if any, need to be taken. Some problematic
situations can be anticipated due to their recurring nature, permitting the opportunity to
develop a mini-script, which involves a number of different statements and responses.
Bystander intervention programs like GreenDot and the MIT bystander site are rich with
examples of these types of phrases and mini-scripts.
Opportunities for practice. People need to work with skills and situations repeatedly and
in different ways in order to develop a sense of confidence in their ability to work with
them. There are a variety of ways to provide this practice. All involve the use of relevant
scenarios and include behavioral modeling (showing how it is done), discussions with
others about effective ways to enact the action, and roleplaying with feedback. These are
core practices of bystander training programs. They are also tools that Ombuds can use
as a bystander of the bystander.
Action plans. To make things even more concrete, it is important to have people map out
the specifics of the situation they want to address, how they plan to address it, and what
specifically they will do and when; a form of visualization and practice.
Throughout this article I have focused on action by an individual bystander. Bystander action can
include collective action as when people work together to implement a policy on workplace
conduct or request that management take action with respect to an actor or comment on
problematic behaviors in meeting. The bystander decision-making model and strategies
discussed above are relevant for talking with people about working together. Exploring the
options for action(s) that involve joining with others and how to most effectively enact the action
should be part of the discussion and training.
As with any discussion of engagement, it is important to highlight the principles of constructive
and nonviolent action and give examples of actions that may contravene that. For example, social
media has facilitated public notification of people to be held accountable for their behavior, i.e.,
“calling out”. Making problematic behavior visible to others can be a powerful sanctioning
strategy; one which the actor is motivated to avoid by refraining from the behavior. However,
sometimes online mobbing develops with a focus on punishing and destroying the other (Ronson,
2016). Ombuds are positioned to a) model collective behavior b) help others think through the
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risks and benefits of their options for themselves, the direct parties involved, and for the broader
community and c) help others envision and practice their actions.
An organization’s culture is the container in which rules and norms are developed and behaviors
and interactions are shaped and promoted. Organizational members’ decisions to take
constructive action to address what they see reflects the culture. Moving people from observation
to engagement, therefore, requires the organization to expect and actively support employee
voice, a collective sense of responsibility and constructive action, and proactively address the
conditions that support/promote problematic interactions (MacCurtain et al, 2018; Rowe, 2018).
Whatever policy, education and training efforts are undertaken, it is critical they be developed
with organizational members and grounded in a deep understanding of the character and profile
of the organization and its members (Keashly, 2019). This process of working together in, and of
itself, is a living embodiment of the values of the organization and results in more constructive
conversation and engagement and a climate that is constructive and fair where mistreatment and
hostility cannot thrive. Ombuds are uniquely positioned for this level of organizational work. They
are knowledgeable about the current state of their organization’s culture. Ombuds are also
knowledgeable about ways to facilitate constructive, fair and safe culture (Rowe, 2018). Finally,
Ombuds also have unique access to influence organizational leaders and thus, the organizational
I will end as I started. Ombuds are in community with fellow organizational members. Ombuds
have influence in building, supporting, and maintaining that community. In this context, the
Ombuds is a bystander. The task as an Ombuds and as an organizational member is to
recognize, embrace, and leverage one’s own “bystanderness” and help others recognize,
embrace, and leverage theirs.
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Bystander Intervention Programs some examples
Sexual violence and high-risk behaviors
Bringing in the Bystander’’
Hollaback is a movement to encourage people to address nonviolently, public harassment and
hate violence they use the 5 Ds approach direct, distract, delegate, delay and document;
Collaboration with GreenDot.
StepUP Bystander intervention program
Mentors in Violence Prevention
Ally programs some examples
Mount Sinai Hospital, Toronto, On “Are you an Ally”? Using privilege to create change.
Becoming an Ally; Ann Bishop - includes a toolkit of exercises and resources
The Safe Zone Project resources for LGBTQ awareness and ally training
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Alan Berkowitz ResponseAbility - Series of videos of Berkowitz addressing different issues
regarding bystander action and illustrating them with stories.
Toxic Friday (edited by Libby Roderick) focus on faculty bullying behaviors University of
Alaska Anchorage video and manual for training and discussion
Government of Saskatchewan videos on personal harassment coworker, customer, and
manager behaviors. Also, a video of responsible manager behavior as distinct from harassment.
Videos are close captioned.
Government of Ontario. “Who will you help?” Sexual Violence Ad Campaign
Waging Nonviolence great set of resources including discussion of active bystander work and
developing a culture of solidarity.
Giving Voice to Values Mary Gentile
- book plus several customizable modules “how to speak your mind when you know it is right”
HeartMob developing an online community to help fight online harassment. (See it. Film it. Change it) Tips on safely and effectively filming and reporting
incidents of hate.
Gathering of resources for developing bystander programs for campuses.
Focus on addressing bullying great set of video resources.
De-escalation strategies for a variety of challenging situations
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Loraleigh Keashly (Ph.D., University of Saskatchewan, 1988) is a Professor in the Department
of Communication at Wayne State University, Detroit, MI, USA. She is also Associate Dean of
Curricular and Student Affairs of the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts. Her
research and consulting work focuses on quality of work relationships and conflict resolution at
the interpersonal, group and inter-group levels. Her current research focus revolves around the
nature, effects and amelioration of uncivil, hostile and bullying behaviors in the workplace with a
particular interest in the role of organizational structure and culture in the facilitation or prevention
and management of these behaviors. She has a particular interest in developing bystander
efficacy to address negative work relationships and build constructive work relationships. She has
focused her recent attention on the academic environment and works with universities on these
issues. Dr. Keashly's work has appeared in various journals and she has been a consultant to
organizations and universities and an expert witness on cases of workplace bullying and hostility.
... Ombuds in academic institutions are often alerted to bullying situations before formally designated offices. In the USA, ombuds have been particularly influential in institutional change to address bullying (Hollis, 2016b;Keashly, 2018b). These third parties are important aspects of the social architecture of bullying and, thus, worthy of further research attention. ...
The culture of academe and academics has been characterized as hostile and cruel with campuses described as “rife” with bullying. In this chapter, extant global research on bullying in academe is reviewed to assess the validity of these characterizations. Given the central role of faculty in shaping the nature of higher education, the experiences of faculty as targets, actors and witnesses of workplace bullying, mobbing and harassment are the focus. The unique features of academe and the nature of the university as a “workplace” and faculty as “workers” as well as the broader social, political and economic context are considered for (1) how they shape the prevalence, nature, dynamics and impact of bullying, mobbing and harassment and (2) resultant insights that have value for the broader workplace bullying literature. Key insights include the status-based nature of bullying, the public and the state as powerful yet understudied actors and the critical influence of culturally shaped behavioural norms in defining what is and is not bullying, who should be involved in assessing and addressing bullying and the limitations of the policy solution. The chapter concludes with a discussion of future research directions as well as current and future practical actions for addressing and ameliorating these destructive and disruptive interactions.
... Ombuds in academic institutions are often alerted to bullying situations before formally designated offices. In the USA, ombuds have been particularly influential in institutional change to address bullying (Hollis, 2016b;Keashly, 2018b). These third parties are important aspects of the social architecture of bullying and, thus, worthy of further research attention. ...
The culture of academe and academics have been characterized as hostile and cruel with campuses described as “rife” with bullying. In this chapter, extant global research on bullying in academe is reviewed to assess the validity of these characterizations. Given the central role of faculty in shaping the nature of higher education, the experiences of faculty as targets, actors, and witnesses of workplace bullying, mobbing and harassment are the focus. The unique features of academe and the nature of the university as a “workplace” and faculty as “workers” as well the broader social, political and economic context are considered for 1) how they shape the prevalence, nature, dynamics and impact of bullying, mobbing, and harassment and 2) resultant insights that have value for the broader workplace bullying literature. Key insights include the status-based nature of bullying, the public and the state as powerful yet understudied actors, and the critical influence of culturally-shaped behavioural norms in defining what is and is not bullying, who should be involved in assessing and addressing bullying, and the limitations of the policy solution. The chapter concludes with a discussion of future research directions as well as current and future practical actions for addressing and ameliorating these destructive and disruptive interactions. Keywords: academic bullying, mistreatment in academe, faculty bullying, status-based harassment, culture of academe.
Full-text available
Research often paints a dark portrait of power. Previous work underscores the links between power and self-interested, antisocial behavior. In this paper, we identify a potential bright side to power—namely, that the powerful are more likely to intervene when they witness workplace incivility. In experimental (Studies 1 and 3) and field (Study 2) settings, we find evidence suggesting that power can shape how, why, and when the powerful respond to observed incivility against others. We begin by drawing on research linking power and action orientation. In Study 1, we demonstrate that the powerful respond with agency to witnessed incivility. They are more likely to directly confront perpetrators, and less likely to avoid the perpetrator and offer social support to targets. We explain the motivation that leads the powerful to act by integrating theory on responsibility construals of power and hierarchy maintenance. Study 2 shows that felt responsibility mediates the effect of power on increased confrontation and decreased avoidance. Study 3 demonstrates that incivility leads the powerful to perceive a status challenge, which then triggers feelings of responsibility. In Studies 2 and 3, we also reveal an interesting nuance to the effect of power on supporting the target. While the powerful support targets less as a direct effect, we reveal countervailing indirect effects: To the extent that incivility is seen as a status challenge and triggers felt responsibility, power indirectly increases support toward the target. Together, these results enrich the literature on third-party intervention and incivility, showing how power may free bystanders to intervene in response to observed incivility.
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How universities address sexual violence is increasingly scrutinized because of the devastating consequences to students who experience violence and mandates that tie federal funding to response and prevention efforts. However, university departments that have a vested interest in sexual violence response and prevention differ in how they frame the problem. This study employs a tension-centered approach to investigate how a multi-disciplinary team addresses the tensions of sexual violence response and prevention. Findings highlight two new dimensions of organizational dilemmas: (1) an occupational orientation dimension and (2) an action orientation dimension. These new dimensions articulate an explanatory framework that underscores how the tension is understood and then posits a repertoire of viable response strategies. These strategies drive particular logics that (re)frame future responses to dilemmas and constrain or transform how team members approach complex organizational dilemmas. This study offers practical guidance to assist universities in addressing sexual violence among college students.
Full-text available
Efforts to end sexual harassment that rely primarily on target reporting are unlikely to be successful because most targets do not report their experiences. Thus, we explore an alternative mechanism for controlling sexual harassment - observer intervention. We examine observer intervention in sexual harassment using the literature on bystander intervention for guidance. We describe the concept of observer intervention, develop a taxonomy of intervention types, and discuss factors promoting and inhibiting its occurrence.
Full-text available
Research has established that targets who express disagreement with prejudicial comments directed toward their social group may be viewed negatively by those they confront or by members of social outgroups. Less research has examined how non-target individuals who confront prejudicial remarks are perceived. The current studies were designed to examine how non-targets who confronted racist (Study 1) and heterosexist (Study 2) comments would be perceived as a function of the level of offensiveness of the comment and the confrontation style used. The studies also examined whether confronting behavior would affect perceptions of the individual who made the prejudicial comment. Undergraduate participants read vignettes depicting a situation with a high or low offensive prejudicial comment in which a non-target individual confronted assertively, unassertively, or not at all. Participants provided judgments of both individuals. Results indicated that non-targets who confronted highly prejudicial comments either assertively or unassertively were liked and respected more than those who failed to confront. Additionally, commenters who were assertively confronted were respected less than commenters who were not. These findings suggest that non-targets may be especially effective in confronting prejudicial comments, as they do not suffer the same negative consequences as targets who confront. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Peers and bystanders play important roles in organizational and community conflict management. Bystanders often learn relevant information and have opportunities to act in ways that can affect three of the basic functions of a conflict management system (CMS.) They can help (or not help) to identify, assess, and manage behaviors that the organization or community deems to be “unacceptable.” Examples in which bystanders play important roles include sexual and racial harassment, safety violations, unethical research, national security violations and insider threats, cyber‐bullying and cyber‐sabotage, violence, fraud, theft, intimidation and retaliation, and gross negligence. Bystanders often are a missing link in conflict systems. For the purposes of this article, I define peers and bystanders as people who observe or learn about unacceptable behavior by others, but who are not the relevant supervisors, or who knowingly engage in planning or executing that behavior. I define CMS managers as all those people, including line managers, who have responsibility for managing conflicts. Conflict managers face many challenges in fostering constructive behavior from bystanders. The interests of bystanders may or may not coincide with the interests of conflict systems managers in an organization or community. Bystanders often have multiple, idiosyncratic, and conflicting interests, and experience painful dilemmas. In addition, peers and bystanders, and their contexts – often differ greatly from each other. Blanket rules about how all bystanders should behave, such as requirements for mandatory reporting, are often ineffective or lead to perverse results. Bystanders are regularly equated with “do‐nothings,” in the popular press. In real life, however, helpful bystander actions are common. Many bystanders report a wide variety of constructive initiatives, including private, informal interventions. In this article, I report on forty‐five years of observations on bystanders in many milieus. I present what bystanders have said are the reasons that they did not – or did – take action, and what can be learned to help organizations and communities to support bystanders to be more effective when faced with unacceptable behavior.
This briefs integrates and synthesizes an array of research about who helps others and under what conditions and discusses the implications of this research for a bystander intervention focused prevention agenda to reduce sexual and relationship violence in schools and communities. It combines an examination of bystander helping behavior in the specific context of sexual and relationship violence with social psychological research on bystander behavior outside that context in order to inform prevention efforts. This briefs is designed for researchers, practitioners, and students concerned about violence prevention and who are interesting in bystander intervention as a promising prevention strategy. Connections between research and practice are the foundation of this briefs. The briefs addresses the following questions: What is the promise of a bystander approach to violence prevention? Where does it fit within the spectrum of sexual and relationship violence prevention? How do we expand theoretical models of helping behavior to the unique context of interpersonal violence? How can we bring in research from other areas of health behavior change and developmental research on violence to inform a broader bystander action model? It provides a new synthesis and model of bystander interaction. It outlines a strategic plan for new research and next steps in prevention practices. © Springer Cham Heidelberg New York Dordrecht London 2015 . All rights reserved.
A promising approach to the persistent problem of workplace sexual harassment (SH) is encouraging interventions by bystanders. Adopting a typology developed by Bowes-Sperry and O'Leary-Kelly that considers the level of immediacy and involvement of bystander interventions, this study explored 74 detailed descriptions of SH events that occurred in Australian workplaces. The findings reveal that despite the hidden nature of SH, there is significant involvement of actors who are not direct targets but their actions are frequently delayed, temporary or ineffective. The study makes two contributions to the study and practice of HRM. First, it provides important evidence of the different ways that bystanders respond to SH in real workplaces and the relative likelihood of these actions. Second, the study points to relevant contextual features evident in the scenarios described which determine if and how bystanders intervene. We discuss the utility of the bystander framework for future research and practice, including the development of bystander interventions as a potentially innovative response to the persistent and damaging problem of workplace SH.
Despite increased diversity efforts, stigmatized targets report frequent experiences with discrimination, particularly in its subtle, everyday forms. We argue that confrontation provides targets and nontargets a way to communicate dissatisfaction with discriminatory treatment, thereby promoting an inclusive climate. We review the Confronting Prejudiced Responses (CPR) Model (S. A. Goodwin, L. Ashburn-Nardo, & K. A. Morris, 2007, 2008), applying its principles to organizational contexts, and we offer practical suggestions for educating people about the roadblocks to confrontation and strategies for overcoming them.