Initial Publication Date: June 10, 2018

Responding to Hostile Behaviors

Responding to hostile behaviors requires a community effort and strong leadership to send a clear message that these types of behaviors are not acceptable. Here you will find strategies to address incidents when they happen through bystander intervention as well as resources for changing the culture so that these behaviors do not continue to be tolerated. A broad response is necessary for long-lasting change and this should start with supporting the people being targeted by harassers. Experiencing harassment, bullying and discrimination can result in physical, emotional and mental duress. At the end of this page we list types of wellness support resources you should expect to have access to, on and off campus.

"We believe you."

Generally, our society does an inadequate job of supporting those who have been harassed. Surveys confirm that most people don't come forward because they fear they will not be believed, or that they will be retaliated against, or they don't believe anything will be done to stop the harassment because they haven't seen any appropriate responses in the past.

The first thing we need to do is provide support. If you see someone being targeted or if they share an experience with you, these are the three things you should say: "I believe you. That was not ok. It is not your fault."

Ask how you can help. If they want to report the incident, offer to accompany them. If they don't want to report, respect their decision (find out from your institution if you are a mandatory reporter and let them know that you are mandated by law if they want to share their experience with you). Offer to help them find resources at your institution.

Be sensitive that not all people identify with the terms 'victim' or 'target.'

Learn more:

Community Response

As educators and science professionals, we have a social contract with our students, trainees, and staff to provide safe spaces for learning and employment where people are treated with dignity. We also have a social contract with society to pursue science for the benefit of humankind. If we break our social contract in the first, we can hardly expect to earn the trust of the public in the second.

- Marín-Spiotta, Schneider and Holmes 2016

What you and your community can do: 

  • Educate yourself
  • Support individuals being targeted
  • Provide access to wellness resources
  • Facilitate public conversations about the problem
  • Identify factors in your environment or site that may contribute to these behaviors
  • Document incidences
  • Be aware of patterns of repeat offenses
  • Codify a no-tolerance* culture
  • Enforce codes of conduct
  • Disincentivize unethical and unprofessional behavior with real sanctions
  • Train personnel on best practices to respond to instances of harassment
  • Provide access to legal advice
  • Publicly commit to creating just, equitable and respectful spaces

(*) We deliberately use 'no-tolerance' because the term 'zero-tolerance' has a problematic history of racial bias and criminalization.

More resources:

Lead By Bxample

Leadership is critical for setting workplace culture. Leaders need to use their position of privilege to send a clear message that harassment and other discriminatory behaviors are inappropriate, unwelcome and will not be tolerated. Any type of misconduct needs to be publicly condemned (this can be done even with protection confidentiality) and codes of conduct need to be enforced. Leaders also need to behave ethically and lead by example.

In addition to the earlier list, here are other steps that department chairs, senior scientists, and others in positions of power can take to actively stop hostile behaviors, building on Diniega et al. (2016) and Mogk (2016). 

  • be prepared: be proactive, have a plan to deal with incidents, learn what resources are available to you
  • instead of just working to do the minimum required by the law, work to create the best possible environment for all
  • call out behavior that promotes harassment, even if it is not illegal
  • intervene to protect vulnerable members of the community
  • make sure your institution's and/or group's antiharassment policies are worded with clear definitions, reporting procedures, and consequences
  • revisit your institution's and/or group's codes of conduct, are they sufficient? if not, revise
  • take anti-harassment policies seriously and enact the disciplinary actions that are a part of them
  • keep yourself, your colleagues and your institutions accountable
  • remove harassers from positions of power or venues where they can continue to harass and do not allow them to just be passed between positions or institution
  • stop collaborating with harassers and their enablers
  • stop appointing harassers and enablers to positions of power
  • stop funding and bestowing awards on harassers

See also Dave Mogk's resources on Geoethics and Professionalism: The Responsible Conduct of Scientists.

Learn more:

Bystander Intervention

Bystander intervention is a powerful tool that can be used to diffuse a tense or even dangerous situation. In our program, we expand the definition of bystander to include all community members, not just those observing the incident as it unfolds because we believe that we all have a responsibility to promote safe and inclusive workplace climates and that even within the power dynamics of our institutions, there are many ways we can work towards these goals and offer support to those being targeted personally by hostile behaviors.

What is bystander intervention and how can you learn to be an effective bystander?

To be an effective bystander you must develop the skills to recognize a potentially harmful situation or interaction, learn different strategies for responding to the incident, and choosing to intervene with the goal of influencing the outcome positively and supporting the person(s) targeted by the incident. Active training for intervention is necessary. Research from psychology shows that the larger the number of bystanders that are present during an incident, the less likely it is that someone from the crowd will step in to help. Two dominant factors contributing to this problem are:

  1. assuming someone else will handle it and
  2. not knowing safe, effective ways to intervene.

In some cases, we may not recognize the incident at the time as harmful or honestly may be so shocked that we don't know how to respond!

This page provides resources to help you feel prepared to actively intervene on behalf of another individual(s) who are in a potentially harmful situation or interaction, which can include, but is not limited to, bullying, harassment, and biased speech. See research on bystander intervention.

In order to be an effective bystander, there are several decisions you must make when confronted with an opportunity to intervene (modified from Step UP!):

  • Notice the event (If you aren't sure if the situation is potentially harmful, investigate - don't just ignore and walk away!)
  • Interpret it as problem/emergency (Red flag signatures that there is a problem/emergency include....)
  • Assume personal responsibility (Take action to intervene - don't assume someone else will do it for you)
  • Have the skills to intervene (Assess the situation and identify which strategy you want to implement- this is where training becomes useful!)
  • Intervene!

Intervention Strategies

The following five strategies ("The 5 Ds") were developed by Hollaback! in partnership with Green Dot. In some instances, all of the strategies are possible. In other situations, only a few of the strategies may be applicable. The particulars of the situation or incident and the safety of all involved, including you, must be considered when determining which strategy to employ. Some of these strategies are applicable if you are being harassed, if you observe someone being harassed, or learn about a harassment incident.

Indirect Intervention

  • Delay - After an incident, check in with the person who was being harassed. Ask them if they are okay, acknowledge that the harassing behavior was not appropriate, let them know you are sorry this happened to them, offer to help find resources, ask if they would like to report, and respect their wishes if they do not. This is really important as failure of others to support people who have been harassed can be very alienating and cause distress. Even a simple acknowledgement that the incident occurred and asking them, "are you ok?" can go a long way.
  • Delegate - Ask a third party for assistance; ideally someone in a position with power to do something about the incident or at least provide the necessary support, such as a supervisor, department chair, lab or field station manager, program director, a more senior student, or a trusted individual. This could also be security or the police, but always ask the person who was targeted if they feel comfortable going to the police before doing so, unless there is a medical emergency.
  • Document - Documenting an incident as it occurs can be very useful, especially for reporting. If you are a bystander, always ask the person who was being harassed what they want to do with the documentation. It is not appropriate to share or post any documentation (e.g. video or photos) of a scenario without the consent of the person who was being harassed. If you are the person being harassed, DOCUMENT all interactions, save and keep a record of all verbal, physical and written encounters as these will be important for helping you build a case, if you decide to report in the future. If the communications have been online or via text, and it is distressing to keep in your inbox, forward to a new email account you create for this purpose that you don't ever have to go back to unless you need the evidence.

Direct Intervention

  • Direct Confrontation - Often, a direct response is appropriate and could include verbally addressing the behavior ("That is not an appropriate thing to say") or questioning the intent ("I'm not sure you meant to imply that."). Depending on the situation, this strategy can be risky and therefore it is important to assess the safety of the situation first, as well as, acknowledge potential repercussions to you and the person being targeted by the harassment.
  • Distract - This is a more subtle way to intervene and is based on interrupting the situation in an effort to diffuse it. For example, you can physically insert yourself between the harasser and the person being targeted, approach the person being affected or the harasser and bring up an unrelated topic (for example, if you don't know the people involved you can ask for directions or pretend that they are a long lost friend, or if all people involved are known to each other, ask if they are going to the seminar or the most recent institutional event).

Responding to Online Harassment or Cyberbullying

Online harassment and cyberbullying are increasingly common and challenging to address legally. Here are some steps you can take to respond:

  • Report the incidents to your campus or local police.
  • Document the harassment by saving all texts or emails. Consider setting up a filter so that these emails bypass your inbox and go directly to a designated folder or forward them to a designated account. Ask someone else to read them and keep track of them.
  • If you are comfortable doing so, consider responding to the harassing emails with a short statement such as, "These are inappropriate emails. Do not contact me in any way in the future."
  • Your campus or healthcare provider are good places for counseling and mental health and wellness support. Initiatives such as HeartMob, by the organization Hollaback!, provide additional resources for supporting targets, educating communities, and mobilizing activists.

Learn more: 

Wellness: Resources for Physical, Emotional and Mental Health

Harassment can leave individuals feeling uncomfortable, dismissed, disrespected, fearful, and/or objectified, and affect mental health. Any type of sexual harassment, even if strictly non-physical, is correlated with an increase in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the highest rates (ranging from one-third to more than one-half of those exposed) are found among survivors of rape. Studies show that 30-80% of survivors of sexual assault develop PTSD compared to nonsexual assault (23–39%). (Purtle et. al. 2016). Blaming the victim for getting harassed and assaulted compounds the mental health effects of trauma and contributes to a culture where victims suffer in silence.

Campus Resources (commonly available on university campuses)

  • Student Health Centers provide access to licensed primary care clinicians
  • Health and Wellness Education through a campus health center, athletics or recreation center, etc.
  • Psychiatry and Counseling Services: Many campuses offer counseling services with licensed psychologists or psychiatrists. Individuals can meet with a counselor one-on-one, or in group settings. Group therapy settings are often centered around a theme, e.g., relationships, family issues, grief and loss, mindfulness.
  • Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center (this may not be available at all universities)
  • American Disabilities Act Centers for Equity and Accessibility
  • University Ombuds Office
  • Academic Access and Achievement Center
  • Office of Multicultural Affairs

Off-Campus Resources

For More Reading

Research on Bystander Intervention

Popular Press on Bystander Intervention


  • Azvolinsky, A. Dealing with unethical or illegal conduct in higher education. The Scientist. Published November 1, 2017
  • Basile, K.C. et. al. 2013. Sexual Violence Surveillance: Uniform Definitions and Recommended Data Elements, Version 2.0. Atlanta, GA, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Diniega, S. et al. 2016. Senior scientists must engage in the fight against harassment. Eos 97. Published on 08 September 2016.
  • Kessler et. al. 1995. PTSD in the National Comorbidity Survey. Archives of General Psychiatry 52: 1048–1060.
  • Marín-Spiotta, E., B. Schneider, and M. A. Holmes. 2016. Steps to building a no-tolerance culture for sexual harassment. Eos 97. Published January 28, 2016
  • Purtle, J. et al. 2016. "Calculating The Toll Of Trauma" in the headlines: Portrayals of posttraumatic stress disorder in the New York Times (1980–2015). American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 86: 632-638.