Active Bystander Orientation


Have you ever witnessed bullying, harassment, or an uncomfortable encounter in a professional context and wished you knew how to intervene? It can be challenging to know what to say or do on the spot. The DLF Code of Conduct invites participants to be Active Bystanders, but what does that really mean? The 2019 DLF Committee on Equity and Inclusion recently put together an Active Bystander Orientation session to help address these questions ahead of the 2019 DLF Forum and share some strategies for bystander intervention, described below. Materials from the session can be found on the DLF Active Bystander Orientation page.

Strategies for active bystander intervention relate to nonviolent communication, self-defense, personal safety, and other skillsets that we (the authors) are not experts in; however we have compiled information from a variety of different sources to inform an introduction to these ideas for personal reflection and empowerment. We cannot endorse any specific course of action, but we can provide a space to talk through some scenarios and apply principles to them. Just like using your GPS for driving, always do a reality check before taking any unmarked roads!


What does “active bystander” mean?

An “active bystander” is someone who witnesses harassment, bullying, microaggressions, or other harmful or inappropriate behavior and chooses to intervene to stop the behavior and help the person or people affected regain composure or get away from the harmful situation. The concepts behind active bystandership do not aim to immediately educate or change standing patterns of individual behavior. Its primary objective is to safely diminish or defuse the negative or potentially harmful situation. The world can seem pretty callous sometimes, but it turns out that most people choose to intervene. Most people don’t just stand idly by– intervention is the norm. 

It is important to acknowledge that as either a non-active or active bystander you ARE part of the situation. Non-active means you witness behavior and do not choose to act. Active bystander means you opt to intervene. Both approaches have risks associated with them. Not being active can lead to normalization of the behavior you are witnessing (e.g. when no one speaks up when a sexist or racist remark is made at work), and being an active bystander may put you at physical risk depending on the specific situation. If/when you notice an individual is behaving in a manner that is disrespectful, harmful, or even violent, your active bystander training can help you determine what is the best approach for the particular situation. It is essential to remember that no matter which approach you select, the goal is for the person on the receiving end of the negative behavior to have the chance to remove themselves from the situation, and for all parties to remain unharmed.

In addition to stopping harm in the present moment, active bystanders demonstrate to others what is possible and what is acceptable within our community; in other words we are modeling behavior. That kind of demonstration of responsibility to one another and that kind of action can be very positive and powerful. It could have an effect even if you don’t see it in the moment! If collectively we want to be a healthy and welcoming community, then an understanding of intervention is one thing that can help.The DLF Code of Conduct provides a framework for understanding how we are expected to interact with each other, and then applying the concept and practice of being an active bystander is a tactic or tool for participating. To understand and be ready to be an active bystander is to be perceptive of yourself and of others in this community, and bring a commitment to being involved and aware of what’s going on around you.


Barriers to intervention

When we recognize harmful interactions but don’t speak up it can send an implicit message that this is ok. This has an effect of both allowing a behavior to continue, and possibly deeply affecting someone who has been harmed, in that they have to deal with the fact that no one said or did anything. All of that said, it’s really important to acknowledge that it can be a challenge for many of us to get past internal resistance and participate in a situation when there are a lot of unknowns. Reasons for not intervening can be very personal and should be respected. It’s an individual choice to become an active bystander, but knowing you’re part of a broader community of support can make all the difference when you’re considering whether to take that step. 

Some common reasons for not intervening include:

  • Not knowing what to do or not being certain that someone wants help
  • Fear of getting it wrong/looking bad in a crowd
  • Fear of being the first to act – everyone thinks someone else will take responsibility
  • Fear of making things worse/exacerbating the conflict for the victim
  • Uncertainty of risk to physical safety for yourself and everyone else in range of the situation in progress 
  • Triggering your own trauma from past situations
  • Fear of personal repercussions – seeing people you know and otherwise respect behaving badly. Calling out the behavior could put your relationship at risk
  • Fear of professional blowback, putting your own job, reputation or influence at risk by publically demonstrating your disapproval of what’s happening
  • Power dynamics, for example if the person who is harming others has more power in your organization or profession and you feel vulnerable

It is important to explore your own internal hurdles and strategies and then feel empowered to safely intervene in a way that matches the situation and your comfort level. You are not alone when you worry about risks — everyone does. It’s more helpful than you might think to try to assess risk and safety before getting involved.


Assessing a situation – is intervention needed?

Before we can address how to intervene, we need to address the types of interactions we can bear witness to, the types of boundaries that can be crossed, the process by which you decide whether or not to intervene, and some basic things to consider before intervening. At a professional conference or other workplace settings, there are a number of different kinds of interactions and encounters between different people in various roles. Interpersonal interactions between attendees and colleagues or locals and staff, session interactions between moderators, presenters, and attendees, and interactions between organizers and attendees. 

Any number of boundaries could be crossed during these interactions, and as active bystanders we need to be aware of others’ boundaries and whether an interaction is crossing those boundaries. Types of boundaries include emotional, mental, intellectual, physical, financial, cultural, or organizational (policy). When deciding if you need to intervene in a situation, ask yourself:

  • Whose boundary was crossed?
  • What type of boundary was crossed?
  • Who is responsible for moderation/enforcement?
    • Is it a legal issue?
    • Is it a policy or CoC violation?
    • Is it a situation where no concrete legal or policy based violation is occurring?

Additionally, consider the Active Bystander “Do’s and Don’ts” from the American Friends Service Committee, including taking cues from the person who is being harassed/affected, making your presence as a witness known, and using “I” statements rather than “you” statements.


Strategies for intervention – the “Five D’s”

Once you have identified the need to intervene, there are different strategies and approaches to consider for HOW to intervene. Hollaback!, a global, people-powered movement to end harassment, outlines the “Five D’s” for active bystander strategies: Direct, Distract, Delegate, Delay, and Document. We’ve also drawn from several other resources here to elaborate on intervention strategies. Depending on the situation, context, and your personal level of comfort in intervening, you may choose one of these approaches, or combine and use more than one of them:



The direct approach is an immediate, in-the-moment, direct response on your part to an inappropriate situation. With a direct response, you are not skirting around the issue at hand but rather drawing immediate attention to why the situation is problematic. Because this approach can be risky if you do not know how others will respond, you may want to begin by asking a few clarifying questions to make sure you have not misunderstood the situation. For example: “Did I hear correctly that you just said X?” This will also allow time for distraction and diffusion of activity that could otherwise escalate. Some things that you could say in a direct intervention include:

  • “That comment was inappropriate / disrespectful / homophobic / racist / etc.”
  • “I am uncomfortable with that comment.”
  • “Jo’s pronouns are they/them/theirs, please respect that.”
  • “I am interested in hearing what Mary has to say. Please stop interrupting her.”

By voicing your concerns directly, other bystanders may feel safer to also voice concerns, which can give you additional time to assess and respond to the situation. The goal with direct intervention is to succinctly stop any inappropriate behavior without further escalating the situation or putting yourself and others in a position where safety is compromised. 



If you feel uncomfortable or unable to use the direct approach, you can still intervene by interrupting the situation at hand and causing a distraction to stop harmful behavior, either by interjecting to speak to the person affected, or by physically doing something to get in the way of the harmful interaction. For example:

  • If you know the person who is affected, step in with some reason that you need to talk to them, like “Hey, did you get my email?”
  • If you don’t know the person, pretend like you do, and greet them, change the subject, or ask something like, “Can you help me find room 435?”
  • Accidentally-on-purpose spill your drink 
  • Ask for the time, or pretend to be checking your phone as you accidentally-on-purpose wander into the middle of the situation

The goal here is to divert attention away from the harmful interaction and help the person affected get away or re-gain their composure.



With the delegation approach, you can enlist the help of friends, other bystanders, or authority figures that can be called to help with a situation if you feel unable to directly intervene or distract. At the DLF Forum, for example, it has been the practice for staff and designated volunteers to wear white lanyards for easy identification, so attendees can always find these folks and report a situation that they observed. If you can’t find someone in person, an email address and phone number are typically shared during the conference’s opening remarks as well as on the printed schedule distributed at registration.

Depending on the situation, you can ask a friend for help or ask other bystanders to distract or otherwise intervene while you find an authority figure. Someone nearby might know the parties involved and be in a better position to intervene. The basic premise here is that you are not alone, there are colleagues that can help if intervention is needed.

If you are in an extreme situation where people’s lives are in danger, calling 911 is an option; however, if you are unsure whether or not to call 911, you might want to use the distract approach to check with the affected person to make sure they want the police to be called. Depending on who is involved, calling the police may make the person affected feel even less safe. If you are unable to check with the person, please use your best judgement.



If you witness something and are unable to take action in the moment, you can still be an active bystander by approaching the affected person after the fact, ask them if they are ok, and tell them you are sorry that happened to them. This approach is really best for harassment or comments that happen in passing where there is no opportunity to be direct or distract. The main point here is to let the person who was affected know that you are here for them and acknowledge the harm that was done. Some things you can say and do after the fact include: 

  • Offering specific types of help
  • Ask if they want to talk about it
  • Offer to accompany them to their next destination
  • Offer to sit with them for a while
  • Ask if they would like assistance in making a report. 

Be respectful of their response, with understanding that they are probably upset by the interaction that took place.

You can also choose to talk privately with the offender after the fact, especially if you know the person or are in a position to do so. Power dynamics and hierarchy come into play here, and you may or may not feel comfortable approaching the person, depending on who they are. You might be able to combine some delegation here and ask for help from someone who does know the person or is in a position of power. The goal in approaching the offender would be to help them understand their error so they can correct it moving forward, rather than berate them for it – this is a concept known as “calling in” as opposed to “calling out” bad behavior. This type of conversation could be very tricky, depending on how it is approached. There are a number of resources out there for how best to approach a conversation like this, such as the “Crucial Conversations” method. Another good resource is the book So you want to talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo, which has a lot of good advice and a chapter specifically on how to speak to someone about microaggressions. The main thing to remember about the delay approach is that even if you are unable to intervene in the moment, you can still take action to show support for the person who was affected, and try to help mitigate future harmful behaviors.



You might be able to help as a bystander by simply documenting a harmful interaction using recording features on your phone. However, if someone is being harassed and no one else is helping them, you might want to use one of the other 4 D’s first. A few tips for safely recording a situation include:

  • Keep a safe distance from the offender
  • Capture landmarks and other scene-identifying features
  • Clearly state the date and time
  • Try to capture at least 10 seconds of the interaction

Once you have a recording, you should ALWAYS ask the person who was affected what they want to do with the recording before you post it or send it to someone else, and respect their decision. Your efforts to help the situation will be in vain if you draw attention to the person affected in a way they are not comfortable with. 



The bottom line for intervention strategies is, do what you can in a way that prioritizes the needs of the person or people affected and safety of all involved (including yourself). Use your best judgement, and consider the safety of yourself and those around you. It may take practice to think on your feet and automatically know what to say and do, however, if we don’t try and help each other, things will not get better. You can also support other active bystanders by working together, or if you notice someone else intervening, consider thanking them! The more we can show support for each other, the better. 


Sources/Additional Resources

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DLF Digest: May 2024

A monthly round-up of news, upcoming working group meetings and events, and CLIR program updates from the Digital Library Federation. See all past Digests here. 

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