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What is an Active Bystander?

Everybody is a Bystander at some time.

A Bystander is a person who observes a conflict or unacceptable behavior. It might be something serious or minor, one-time or repeated, but the Bystander knows that the behavior is destructive or likely to make a bad situation worse.

An active bystander takes steps that can make a difference.

First, an active bystander assesses a situation to determine what kind of help, if any might be appropriate. (See Assessing Bystander Situations)

Second, an active bystander evaluates options and chooses a strategy for responding. (See Active Bystander Strategies.)

See Responding to Situations for examples of appropriate strategies in a variety of situations.

Why does a bystander's response matter?

It matters to the person who is or may be harmed in the situation.

  • Victims of crime may be more infuriated at bystanders who did nothing to stop it than at the perpetrator.
  • The notorious case of the Kitty Genovese murder in which dozens of people in their apartments saw or heard the attack and her screams, as the assailant repeatedly stabbed her, yet did not even call the police, initiated the study of bystander behavior.
  • On the other hand, an African American woman reported an incident in the 1980's when she offered her credit card to the clerk, who took down a booklet listing stolen credit cards to check it. A white woman who had just finished paying challenged the clerk, "Why are you taking down that book? You didn't look at it when I paid by credit card, or the white person before me? Are you checking it just because she's black?" The African American woman remembers the incident almost 20 years later.

It indicates to both the offending person and the potentially offended person where the larger community stands.

  • If one person does something to another that contravenes community norms or values, such as making a racist remark, and a bystander ignores it, then the offending person may think that such behavior is actually acceptable.
  • The offended or harmed person may think that nothing can be done and that s/he will just have to live with such behavior.
  • "If a norm is deeply held, its violation should provoke reactions. What sense can we make, then, of the silence of bystanders?" *


What are some Bystander Situations?
  • Rude, inconsiderate, or unprofessional behavior
  • Harassment
  • Inappropriate or offensive humor
  • Dangerous behavior
  • Escalating or destructive conflict
  • Unfair or discriminatory behavior
  • Meanness or bullying
  • Violation of ethical standards
  • Inappropriate advances
  • Threats or potential violence


*from Ancona, Scully, Van Maneen, and Westney, Managing the Future: Organizational Behavior and Processes, 2nd edition, Southwestern, 2004)



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