How to be an active bystander and stand up against discrimination

Ruby Dark

May 16, 2022

May 17 marks International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. It’s an important day to pay attention to because the LGBTQ+ community still face unique barriers to inclusion in the workplace and beyond. More than a third of LGBT+ staff have hidden or disguised their sexuality or gender identity at work because they were afraid of discrimination. As leaders and colleagues, it’s time to take a stand.

To build inclusive organisations, we need to stand up against discrimination of all kinds. No one should feel pressure to be a different person at work. To nurture environments where everyone feels safe being their full selves, we should practice zero tolerance to discrimination, with emphasis on the word ‘practice‘. We need to put our words into action.

So what can you do to stand up against homophobia, transphobia and biphobia? This post will give you some tools to be an active bystander and safely shut down discrimination.

Inclusive definitions


What is homophobia?

Negative attitudes, beliefs and stereotypes about gay, lesbian or bi people. Instances of homophobia include making fun of people for same-sex attraction, using derogatory language or slurs and believing that same-sex relationships are less valid than heterosexual ones.


What is transphobia?

Negative attitudes, beliefs and stereotypes about transgender (trans) people – those whose gender identity is different to the one they were assigned at birth. Transphobia includes intentionally misgendering someone (for example, using incorrect pronouns or names), accusing someone of lying about their gender identity, or denying trans people exist altogether. Read more about trans inclusive workplaces here.


What is biphobia?

Negative attitudes, beliefs and stereotypes about bisexual (bi) people – those who identify as attracted to more than one gender. Biphobia may manifest as the belief that bi people are faking it, going through a phase, or that bisexuality isn’t real and everyone is either homosexual or heterosexual.

Why do people find it difficult to step in?

Instances of harassment and discrimination are, unfortunately, still commonplace in many workplaces. One study suggests that 38% of UK workers have experienced discrimination at work.

You probably read that stat and shudder. Even though you might be strongly opposed to discrimination or harassment, actually standing up against it is a different story.

A curious psychological phenomenon known as the ‘bystander effect’ states that when there are other witnesses too, we’re less likely to intervene in situations like these because we feel less personal responsibility to act.

Imagine you’re on a crowded bus, and you overhear two men making homophobic comments towards another passenger. He can hear them too, and like everyone else on the bus, he’s ignoring them. Maybe you’d think, “someone else will handle this, it’s not my business.” And chances are you wouldn’t be the only one thinking it.

These situations occur at work too. Now imagine someone in your company comes out as non-binary. They announce to the team that they’re changing their name and would like to be referred to with they/them pronouns from now on. In your next meeting, the team leader refers to this colleague by their old name, and uses she/her instead of they/them.

You notice the mistake and wonder if anyone is going to correct it. But with 10 other people in the room, why should you be the one to say something? The thing is… everyone else is thinking the same thing. The meeting ends without anyone correcting your team leader, and your colleague leaves feeling deflated and let down.

It’s not easy to step in in situations like this. It might feel uncomfortable to correct someone or challenge their behaviour, even more so in hostile situations. So how can you safely and confidently challenge discrimination?

How to become an active bystander

An active bystander is someone who steps in when they see harmful behaviour, regardless of how many other witnesses there are. The 5Ds offer some tactics to safely challenge discrimination or harassment:

  • Delay: Take some time to judge the situation and think about the most appropriate course of action. If you can’t act in the moment, you can still make a difference by checking in with the victim after and asking how you can help them.
  • Direct action: This method involves directly intervening in the situation. Firmly challenge the behaviour with your body language, facial expression and words. Before you act, assess the situation to make sure you and others are safe.
  • Distract: This is a less direct approach. Draw attention to yourself, interrupt the aggressor or change the conversation. It can help the victim get out of harm’s way. This is particularly effective in instances of micro-aggressions.
  • Delegate: Sometimes, harassment or discrimination requires more serious intervention. In these cases, seek help from someone else, report unacceptable behaviour and escalate problems fairly.
  • Document: If you’re witnessing discrimination or harassment, it can be helpful to record the situation. It could mean filming what’s happening on your phone or taking notes to offer supporting evidence. Always ask the victim what they wish to do with your documentation before acting further.

Most importantly, validate the victim. You should always ask what would help them feel better about the situation. It could be reporting the behaviour, talking to the aggressor or another course of action. Be sure to centre their needs.

Remember, being an active bystander doesn’t mean putting yourself in harm’s way. It means assessing the situation and deciding on a sensible course of action to protect everyone involved.

It takes practice to be an active bystander. For more helpful (free) resources, have a look at Right to Be, an organisation that trains people to respond to harassment.

As active bystanders, we can stand up for our colleagues and build more inclusive environments. With these skills, we can effectively tackle homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, and all other forms of discrimination as well.

Backing it up

Dobbin, F. & Kalev, A. (2019) ‘The promise and peril of sexual harassment programs’ PNAS

Dobbin, F., Kalev, A., & Kelly, E. (2007). Diversity management in corporate America. Contexts6(4), 21-27.

Lee et al. (2019) ‘Incorporating bystander intervention into sexual harassment training’, Industrial and Organizational Psychology