You Can Address Workplace Bias as a “Bystander

By Tyra Sidberry

While one might assume that nonprofits would be models of inclusion and diversity, they sometimes need to proactively address these challenges within their own organizations.

Since the journey to becoming—and then maintaining—a diverse, inclusive organization is a long, sometimes bumpy, and rarely straight-ahead path, there are things you can do immediately to move your organization in the right direction. Instead of being just a bystander on the road to an inclusive organization and community, you can become an active, engaged bystander ”“ one capable of rising to even the most challenging situations.

For example, you’re hosting the annual summer outing for your nonprofit’s staff, board members, and supporters. Midway through the successful gathering, your board treasurer loudly thanks the new volunteer coordinator for “helping us meet our diversity quotas, so we won’t have to worry about adding anymore 'mommies’ to the group for a while.”

You’re shocked and embarrassed, and you know you should say or do something. The problem is you just aren’t sure how to intercede in a way that is productive.

By taking on the role of an “active bystander” in this situation, you can speak up, make room for silenced voices, halt a painful escalation, steer everyone away from the “blame game,” and sustain and increase respect for diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Here’s how.

Take Responsibility

Assume personal response. As an active bystander, you acknowledge that an act of bias has occurred and then assume personal responsibility for calling the situation what it is. As an active bystander, you do not rationalize that perhaps you are “reading too much into the situation.” You also do not rationalize that you should “mind your own business” or feel that it would be 'patronizing” to speak on behalf of the person being insulted.

Acknowledge everyone’s role. As an active bystander, you acknowledge that everyone involved owns the situation, not just the offender and offended parties. You make clear that this act of bias—whether intentional or unintentional ”“ —has the potential to be detrimental for everyone and to diversity and inclusion efforts within your nonprofit organization.

Take Action

Move quickly. Then you quickly move the conversation from debate to inquiry and then action. Too often the parties are stuck in debate mode about what has transpired, with the offender insisting that the offended party simply misunderstood or misinterpreted the situation.

Show respect. First, make the offended party feel recognized and respected. Especially if the offender uses the words he or she to refer to the offended party, be sure to call each person by name, and, by example, encourage both parties to follow your lead.

Turn your body slightly toward the offended party, but be sure to also avoid turning your back on the offender. You want to make both parties feel that you are making yourself available to them. Then provide a conversational segue from confrontation to building understanding and a mutual desire to find common ground.

Make this a teachable moment. Take a tempered, learning stance. Ask a clarifying question, and be sensitive not to inflame the situation further by embarrassing the offender further. “Do you mean that we are lucky to have so many new mothers on our program team,” you can ask, “because this first-hand experience will further enhance our ability to serve our constituents?”

Then validate what might be a controversial position: that someone has been offended because something inappropriate was said. “I agree that this addition to our staff and volunteer corps is wonderful,” tell both the offender and the offended parties. “But I think that the way this sentiment was expressed could be hurtful and suggests, perhaps unintentionally, that we do not value diversity and inclusion in our organization.”

Go for the small win that makes a difference in the moment. Realize that you can’t change everything in one instance. But suggest an opportunity to discuss this further at a later time if the situation warrants it.

Following these action steps can help you or anyone in your nonprofit organization become an active bystander and avoid the role of judge, avenger, fixer or hero/heroine. You will instead be a stakeholder and facilitator in creating a diverse and welcoming workplace.

Tyra Sidberry is director of the Diversity and Inclusion Initiative at Third Sector New England. She can be reached at 617-523-6565 or by email at