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What To Do When You Witness Disrespect In The Workplace

This article was based on episode 109 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Get 10% off trainings with Hollaback! when you become a member at

We’ve all done it at one point or another: Stood quietly watching a disrespectful interaction unfold in front of us, our inaction causing feelings of awkwardness, guilt, fear and even shame. But what are you supposed to do when witnessing a disrespectful interaction between colleagues? It can be confusing to determine an effective, professional, and supportive response that doesn’t jeopardize your career, physical and emotional safety, or work relationships.

Unfortunately, silence and inaction only cause disrespect to further take root in our workplaces. Emily May, the executive director of Hollaback!, shares new ways to understand unhealthy dynamics in the workplace, and guidance for how to respond when you observe inappropriate behaviors so we can all take responsibility for creating a healthy workplace environment.


Harassment is often thought of as severe, illegal behaviors, but Emily suggests we consider a spectrum a disrespect. On one end, there are mild behaviors which may easily be overlooked. For example, people do not listen to each other, intentionally undermine one another or refuse to acknowledge the contributions of others. Things like shaming and humiliation, often in the forms of jokes, is acceptable.

Having such elements in a workplace culture creates fertile ground for greater disrespect. What initially seems negligible then escalates into more traditional forms of harassment, such as inappropriate comments, sexual innuendos, verbal abuse, and inappropriate touching. This is why it’s critical to interrupt the small infractions and be explicit that disrespect of any kind has no place in the work environment.


When you observe disrespectful behavior in the workplace, whether that be in person or online, there are five approaches you can take to intervene. Each provides a powerful way to engage while considering what is most appropriate for the situation.

  • Delegate: Find somebody else who can help, which could be an HR colleague cr another coworker

  • Distract: Create a diversion that changes the direction of the conversation or creates a pause, enabling the situation to deescalate

  • Delay: Check in on the person who was disrespected afterwards to let them know you saw what happened and want to be sure they are OK

  • Document: Create documentation of the who, what, when, and where of the situation, and give it to the person who experienced the disrespect

  • Direct: Confront the situation head on by interjecting to let the aggressor know their words or behaviors are not appropriate

To further illustrate the different options for each type of bystander intervention, Emily provides additional context for each approach.

Delegate; Recognize Your Identity in Context

When observing a disrespectful interaction, you may not be the best person to respond. If the disrespect is gendered, a woman may be less comfortable interjecting. In cases where you feel someone else may be more appropriate, ask a nearby coworker for help. People often hear “delegate” and assume they must go to HR, but it may be as simple as engaging a passerby.

Distract; Disrupt The Energy Of the Situation

By turning the attention to somebody or something else, you can move the energy away from the two people experiencing conflict, helping to deescalate the situation. With distraction intervention, there are two basic approaches.

Start a conversation with the person experiencing harassment

Interrupt the conversation to ask the person who is being disrespected or harassed a question: “I have a question about this report that I'm about to turn in. I could use your help for a minute.” (It’s OK to totally make up a question or request!) The idea is not to talk about the harassment directly but to interject a safe topic that either starts a new conversation or gives a reason for the individual to walk away. The person doing the harassing, starved of the attention they're looking for in the dynamic, usually slowly backs up into the distance and disappears.

Create a literal distractions, like spilling a little glass of water

It’s hard not to notice a noisy event happening nearby. When you make a big deal over spilling water on the floor or dropping your papers everywhere, you create a break the situation. This allows the person who's disrespecting to check in with themselves for a second, and gives the person being disrespected time to take a deep breath and figure out how they're going to get out of the situation, for example, by offering to help you clean up or saying they need to get to their next meeting.

Delay; The Importance of What Happens After

Research from Cornell University shows that even a knowing glance to somebody who's being disrespected or harassed can significantly reduce their experience of trauma. Checking-in on a coworker immediately after they’ve experienced disrespect can be as simple as sitting with them while they’re in crisis, acknowledging what you saw, or asking if they need anything. These basic acts can offer tremendous support and validation. On the other hand, the consequence of not checking-in on a teammate after a disrespectful incident can lead to an erosion of trust. While it may appear that ignoring the incident will avoid embarrassing the person further, in actuality, the lack of acknowledgement makes it seem like everyone is complicit in the disrespect.

Document; Memory is Imperfect

Our memories, even for traumatic events, are fickle. People often wait until it's too late to start documenting, and then find later on that they are unable to recall important details. Doing that work for a colleague can be immensely supportive. Get down in writing (or on video if appropriate) what was said, who was in the room, what time it was, etc. and give it to the person experiencing the harassment. Even if they don't want to escalate it or file a complaint at the moment, having the documentation and knowing that you have their back if they ever decide to speak to HR is extraordinarily powerful and validating.

Direct; Ask A Clarifying Question

There's a lot of pressure on managers in particular to respond directly to disrespectful situations. While there are times to set very clear boundaries by confronting the person in the moment, that’s not always necessary. For example, if someone says, “Don’t give that project to Janet. She’s got kids at home,” you could say, “Stereotypes about moms don't belong here.” Or, you could ask a clarifying question such as “It sounds like you were implying that being a mom means Janet is somehow not fit for the job. Did I understand that right?” that gives the person being disrespectful a chance to catch themselves.

Hopefully they see how their comment was inappropriate and respond with an apology and acknowledgement. “Oh, that’s not what I meant. It’s just that I figured she wouldn’t want to travel for that client because it would require her to be away so much, but I see how that train of thought makes a lot of assumptions and we should ask Janet what she wants.” If they come to that conclusion on their own, without you reprimanding them, they also hold on to that lesson longer. But if the offending person doesn’t get it, you do need to set that clear boundary.

It’s important to signal to other staff present that this type of behavior or thinking is unacceptable and incorrect. Separately, a deeper conversation is often necessary as well. During this follow-up, your job is to help the individual understand why their language, actions or thought pattern was problematic and find new, more appropriate language and ways of behaving.


Unfortunately, with a scarcity of resources during this pandemic, including access to food and health care, coupled with fear and miscommunication, Emily reports an increase in bias in the workplace, especially for front-line workers, and a dramatic rise in harassment cases particularly among women and communities of color.

Bias can be explicitly expressed directly through conscious awareness, such as a colleague mentioning they don’t like people of a specific identity. But oftentimes in the workplace it's implicit, indirect, and unconscious biases that are most prevalent, such as not acknowledging contributions from people with a certain identity.

Because many teams have become virtual, some individuals have felt a reduction in harassment or disrespect in the workplace simply because they are working remotely. This, along with greater societal awareness means more people are demanding to feel safe and comfortable in the workplace as they come back into those shared physical spaces.

The importance of having a toolbox for responding to disrespectful situations in the workplace is crucial to team safety. Bystander intervention isn't about heroics, but about taking care of the person who's experiencing harassment. Changing your attitude from saving the day to considering what the victim needs in that moment - be it emotional support, distraction, or direct intervention - will help insure your actions align with altruistic intentions. In this way, we can all contribute to building safe, respectful workplaces.


Twitter: @ihollaback

Instagram: @ihollagram

Get 10% off trainings with Hollaback! when you become a member of The Modern Manager community at Purchase individual episode guides at to help you implement the learnings and continue to enhance your rockstar manager skills.

This article was based on episode 109 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.


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