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Illustration by Security Management; photos by iStock

Giving Bystanders Options for Incident Intervention

“No.” In response to new restrictions, requirements, or expectations—from COVID-19 mask mandates and social distancing to heightened demands for respect and racial equality—this simple refusal is often the spark to a larger reckoning.

Retail employees found themselves embroiled in arguments over customers’ politics and beliefs about COVID-19. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) faced a 149 percent rise in hate crime in the United States, according to Stop AAPI Hate, with a particular spike in verbal abuse and physical attacks. Airlines delayed a return to serving inflight alcohol given an uptick in passenger disruptions, unruly behavior, and hostility or abuse toward flight attendants—especially in response to mask mandate enforcement.

As a result of these tense climates, organizations are taking steps to better prepare employees for confrontation. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced in June that it would restart flight attendant self-defense training to address physical altercations both on and off the aircraft.

However, a key element in flight attendants’ toolkit has been recently missing. Many regular travelers are not flying due to business restrictions or other factors, so typical go-to helpers are missing from flights, said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, to CNBC. Those passengers understand the expectations of behavior on planes and can intervene or create peer pressure which can diffuse potential conflicts.

Frontline employees at retailers and other businesses have also faced increased conflict during the past 18 months, but their challenges with irate or offensive customers have lasted significantly longer than that. According to a Racial Bias in Retail Study conducted by makeup retailer Sephora, one in five retail employees reported having personally experienced unfair treatment based on their race at their workplace—either from customers or coworkers.

In response to workplace conflict, a dozen retailers—including Gap, Inc.; Dick’s Sporting Goods; and Sephora—announced a new Inclusive Retail campaign that seeks to arm employees and customers with tools to ensure inclusion, safety, and acceptance of retail associates, especially since customer frustration around pandemic restrictions can manifest in racist or discriminatory ways. While the campaign is not asking customers to step in and physically stop a confrontation, it aims to provide tools for bystanders to help de-escalate situations and show support for workers.

“Across the board, we see data showing rises in harassment across all major areas,” including hate crimes, microaggressions, and harassment, says Emily May, cofounder and executive director at Hollaback!, a nonprofit organization that designs and distributes bystander intervention training.

Especially over the past five years, we have seen waves of harassment against particular communities.

“Especially over the past five years, we have seen waves of harassment against particular communities,” she adds. “What we’re trying to invite people to do is, instead of looking at these as independent issues, to ally with each other across these issues and design a united front—to not just show up when your community is being harassed but when other communities are being harassed as well.”

Hollaback! was founded after a study of harassment incidents found that the one common denominator that gave victims hope was when someone intervenes, May says. Recent incidents—including a rise in the rate and visibility of anti-AAPI harassment, microaggressions, and hate crimes—are indicative of larger trends across the board, and people are trying to become better allies for more vulnerable populations. This leaves them eager for potential solutions.

Intervention training is a useful tool in any company’s workplace violence prevention arsenal, says Steven Crimando, principal at Behavioral Science Applications. He notes that companies with significant Asian American employee bases—particularly those in the technology sector or near cities with large Asian districts or AAPI populations—are looking to boost their offerings to help employees feel and stay safe both at work and at home.

Sometimes this boost comes in the form of additional communication about existing programs such as security escorts to vehicles, incident reporting protocols, employee assistance programs, and fact sheets about crime rates and good safety practices. Companies can even leverage current investments in security systems—like mass notification or travel tracking programs—to establish an emergency call feature that employees can use.

After that, Crimando says organizations should ask employees what else would help them instead of guessing. The requests may be surprising—from tip lines to in-workplace bias training to self-defense courses to bystander intervention training.

“We’re trying to raise the bar in terms of prevention and early recognition,” Crimando says. “When we speak about situational awareness to this audience, we teach them to be purposefully conscious of the two Rs: risks and resources. The risks are the people, places, and things that may hurt us, but also in the same environment or moment, what are the people, places, and things that may help us.”

Many recent incidents, especially regarding anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States, have been blitz attacks, with the assailant rushing up behind the victim. This limits the potential responses of victims and bystanders, Crimando says, so organizations could be well-served by offering tools and resources that address both pre- and post-event awareness and skills, including preventative tips that can help an individual present a less inviting target.

There are behavioral indicators of potential hostile surveillance, such as being followed or getting a gut feeling of danger, he says. Recognizing a risk early gives the person time to identify resources.

Other preventative or proactive measures can include teaching people how to walk differently and project an alert persona, emphasizing situational awareness and street-level awareness, guidance on what to do if confronted verbally, how to apply “Run. Hide. Fight.” principles if necessary, managing emotional aftershocks, how to report incidents to police, and how to speak to others about the incident afterward, Crimando says.

“It’s a multifactor problem, and it benefits from a multifactor approach,” he adds.

Intervention training is all about giving people options, May says. While some corporate security and legal departments have balked at the idea of teaching people how to interject themselves into a potentially dangerous situation, providing choices outside of direct confrontation may create many safer avenues for bystanders.

When we speak about situational awareness to this audience, we teach them to be purposefully conscious of the two Rs: risks and resources.

Some schools have requested bystander intervention training for students, who are likely to intervene when they see something wrong occurring, but tend to escalate straight to direct conflict, she adds. Training helps students to see that other options could be more supportive for the victim and safer for the bystander.

Conflict de-escalation is “Gandhi-level hard” May says, differentiating it from verbal intervention. De-escalation usually requires someone in a position of authority to intervene in a potentially violent situation by observing, breathing, then connecting with the aggressor. This requires a high degree of self-control and emotional intelligence in addition to training.

Bystander intervention is more user-friendly, she adds, and Hollaback! teaches a 5D approach, which can apply to online harassment, as well as in-person incidents.

Distract. The bystander can create a distraction—whether starting a conversation with the person being harassed or simply dropping a coffee cup—to change the energy of a situation or alert the harasser that others are nearby. Online, people have taken over incendiary hashtags on Twitter with off-topic memes or GIFs to drown out hurtful commentary.

Delegate. Bystanders can ask for help, whether from an authority figure like a bus driver or police officer or another bystander. Delegating responsibility also helps to support the bystander, especially when his or her personal safety could be at risk.

Document. Bystanders can record or document an event via smartphone camera in-person, or online they could take screenshots and track hyperlinks before the offender deletes them, either to report the offense to the platform or to offer the material to the victim to use as evidence if they choose to pursue further action.

Delay. This intervention largely occurs after an incident. “Sometimes harassment is quick, and a check-in of ‘I saw that; it wasn’t okay. What do you need right now?’ can be huge,” May says. “Not having that check-in, if people watch it and nobody does anything, can increase the trauma for the person being harassed.”

Direct. At first glance, people equate bystander intervention with direct action, but there are many options within this concept. Bystanders are not expected to educate the offender about their conduct, May says, but “we’re merely asking you to set that boundary: ‘She looks really uncomfortable, why don’t you give her some space.’ Once you set that boundary, turn your attention to the person being harassed.”

May recommends placing heavy emphasis on personal safety—there are frequently valid reasons not to intervene, including fear for individual safety or fear of escalating the situation. But multiple options within the 5Ds are nonconfrontational and even familiar to many people; delegation can be as simple as reporting an incident of harassment to security personnel—something that many employees are already conditioned to do. The options also give people permission to intervene in more incidents, including those that involve microaggressions or other offenses that may have been hurtful to the victim but may not be strictly illegal or against company policies.

Companies can provide ongoing resources and communication about available support programs, ingraining safety into their corporate culture to help foster a community-like environment where people seek to take care of each other, May says.

“People feel more safe at work now,” says Crimando. “It’s the risk in between the threshold of the home to the threshold of the workplace that is concerning.”