Racism at work: how to Be an active bystander

Pearn Kandola wants to know what you did the last time you heard someone say or do something racist at work? Nothing is the wrong answer

When was the last time you heard someone say or do something racist at work? Perhaps it was a derogatory comment made based on a racial stereotype or something as subtle as watching a colleague be ignored or talked over. Did you think it was acceptable? Did you challenge that inappropriate behaviour? Did you even identify it as racism?

In a study carried out by my fellow psychologists at Pearn Kandola, it was found that over half (52%) of Brits have observed racist behaviour at work. Although we’ve recently seen an increase in reported levels of inappropriate behaviours, sadly, most people who do witness racist behaviour do nothing about it.

All of us who witness inappropriate behaviour are bystanders. But it’s your choice as to whether you’re a passive bystander or an active bystander.

A passive bystander is someone who witnesses a behaviour but does nothing about it. An active bystander is someone who chooses to act when they witness a behaviour, challenging it in an attempt to prevent it from happening again.

So, to those of you who claim not to be racist or claim to be actively anti-racist, I ask: Are you an active bystander?

When do we need to challenge inappropriate behaviour?

The answer to this question is simple: always. Inappropriate, racist behaviour happens often, and whether you’re in a work setting, public setting, or personal setting, it needs to be challenged.

The most obvious examples that might spring to mind are more overt acts of racism. For example, making jokes about someone’s nationality or using racial stereotypes. But racism can also manifest itself in more subtle ways that are less blatantly inappropriate but still have a corrosive impact.  In these situations, the behaviour is likely to go unchallenged.

Saying that an organisation is meritocratic when there is diversity at one level but not another, for example, is an act of racism itself. This is because it suggests that a lack of diversity isn’t an issue caused by the organisation but that the issue instead sits with the diverse group of individuals.

Similarly, racial evasiveness – to deny that problems occurring are race-related – is also an act of racism. For instance, when discussing the Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year, a friend of mine recently said: “I don’t think people are angry about race; I think they’re angry at not being able to go out because of the pandemic.”


The power of social norms

Every time racist behaviour occurs and goes unchallenged, it is normalised to those around us.  The more normal or commonplace, or acceptable a behaviour is seen, the more likely it will happen again, so the cycle continues. Your response to the actions of those around you strongly impacts whether or not a behaviour is normalised or not, and it’s your responsibility to either accept or challenge that behaviour.

It’s easy enough to suggest that we all must be active bystanders, but at the same time, there are many reasons why those who witness racist behaviour in the workplace don’t report it. Witnesses may find themselves asking:

  • Did I really just see that?
  • Is there an element to their relationship I don’t know about?
  • Did the victim bring this on themselves?
  • Do I have the authority to challenge here?
  • What will happen to me if I intervene?

These seeds of doubt prevent many from standing up to racist behaviour. In order to tackle racism in the workplace, witnesses need to understand exactly what it is to be an active bystander.

How to be an active bystander

Being an active bystander doesn’t necessarily require you to confront a perpetrator face to face, then and there, as in some scenarios that may not be the most logical next step. In fact, there are four different methods of challenging, known as the Four D’s:

  • Distraction

Indirectly intervening with the situation, distraction involves interrupting the conversation and changing its focus. Particularly useful in public places or where you are unsure of how a perpetrator may act, this method involves talking to the person on the receiving end of the behaviour to stop the behaviour.

  • Delegation

Delegation involves reporting racist or inappropriate behaviour to seniors or those who can make a difference, like HR. This can be useful in a workplace setting, as long as you aren’t a senior member of staff.

  • Delay

This involves delaying intervention until after the situation has ended. It might involve speaking to both parties, and is particularly useful in front of bigger groups where you’d like to avoid causing a scene, or if you’re a more junior member of staff. The important thing to remember when delaying is that you can’t delay forever, and it’s still important to bring the issue to light.

  • Direct

The most obvious and perhaps most satisfying method of intervention is to be direct and challenge the behaviour then and there using a clear statement.

When challenging behaviour directly, following these steps, known as the continuum of intervention, can help you gauge how to approach the situation:

  • Seed sowing – for example, setting expectation at the start of a meeting that behaviour in the meeting should be respectful and inclusive.
  • Hypothetical – helping the perpetrator to recognise the potential impact of what they have just said – “What would our boss say if they overheard this conversation?” or “What would the papers do if they got hold of this email chain?”.
  • Framework – using the strength of an organisation to back up your perspective, for example, “that’s not the way we do things here” or “that’s not in line with our values”.
  • Direct Statement – calling behaviour out for what it is, for example, “I feel uncomfortable when you… and I would prefer you didn’t do that at work”. This is most impactful when personal pronouns are used to express your feelings towards the comments.
  • Punitive – using formal procedures to raise a grievance or complaint.

Of course, each of these methods of delivering a direct challenge is suited best to certain individuals or scenarios. The most effective challengers move up and down the continuum depending on the seriousness and longevity of the issue, as well as their relationship with the person concerned.

It’s also important not to overplay direct challenges, as it could work against you. Many of my clients, for example, may tell you that I’m an extremely direct person, but that could work to my disadvantage in situations where a challenge I make could be ignored and shrugged off – “Don’t worry about her, she’s just a bit politically correct”.

So, now, think back again to the last time you saw or heard someone say or do something racist at work. How would you now go about challenging that behaviour?

Make sure that you are comfortable and confident in challenging behaviour, perhaps practicing what you might say if you find yourself in that very situation again. Being an active bystander takes conscious effort, and it may feel unnatural at first. But, with a little conscious effort, we can all start to help mould more positive social norms.

Nic Hammarling, Head of Diversity at business psychology firm Pearn Kandola

Rate This: