Being an ethical bystander

This factsheet explains what it means to be an ethical bystander as well as how and when it can be helpful to be an ethical bystander.

What is an ethical bystander?

An ethical bystander is someone who witnesses a harmful event
and chooses to intervene (take action) in a way that positively impacts the outcome.

An ethical bystander considers their own safety and wellbeing, as well as the consequences of their actions on others, before deciding the safest way to intervene.

Questions an ethical bystander might ask themself when faced with
a violent, criminal or emergency situation include:

  • Is this person in need of help?
  • Am I part of the solution?
  • How can I keep myself safe?
  • What courses of action are available to me?
  • Are there others nearby who can help me?
  • What are the pros and cons of taking action?

How common is it to be an ethical bystander?

Choosing to be an ethical bystander can be challenging, but it’s an important way of helping to build a culture of respect and safety where violence isn’t tolerated. Even taking small actions when you see something harmful can have a positive impact.

In 2017, the Australian Human Rights Commission published a report on sexual assault and harassment at Australian universities. Their research revealed that in 2016, 25% of students at Australian universities witnessed another student being sexually harassed.

Of that 25%, almost a quarter of students took action in response. The most common action was talking to the person experiencing the harassment, while the second most common action was talking to the perpetrator.

When to be an ethical bystander and what might prevent that?

You can choose to be an ethical bystander any time you see or hear something that concerns you.

That includes violent and criminal acts like assault, but it can also include inappropriate jokes, disrespectful language, harassment, or comments about someone’s appearance.

If we allow offensive jokes and language to go unchallenged and become normalised, that creates an environment where abuse and assault become more likely.

It is important to remember that being an ethical bystander doesn’t mean you have to get directly involved in a situation yourself. It can be as simple as asking someone else for help.

There are some known barriers that can prevent people from taking action. These include:

  • the age of the bystander - children often feel unable to take action
  • fear - for safety of self and others
  • practical considerations such as distance or money

Being an ethical bystander isn’t always easy. We encourage you, in all situations, to trust your own instincts.

Where to get more information?

Our Watch ( runs a campaign called Doing Nothing Does Harm which aims to motivate and support bystanders to do something when they see or hear disrespect towards women.

VicHealth has published a comprehensive guide to help organisations introduce ethical bystander initiatives.

The University of Queensland has put together an online toolkit that provides example scenarios where an ethical bystander might choose to intervene and suggests different techniques and methods for doing so.

White Ribbon Australia ( have produced a collection of resources for men and boys who want to prevent men’s violence against women available at the Barber Shop.

Being an ethical bystander

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