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If You Are a Witness

“I regret not having done anything!” “I suspected something!” “Everyone knew!” These kinds of comments are common when a case of violence, bullying or harassment becomes public. But by then, it’s already too late. The question is: why? 

When there are multiple witnesses, each one does nothing because they think the others will intervene (dilution of responsibility). Or, each one wonders about the seriousness of the situation. They think that if everyone else is doing nothing, they must have misunderstood what is happening (perception). If the witnesses know one another (same university or workplace), fear of reprisals may justify inaction (protection). 

INRS has zero tolerance for harassment and anyone who witnesses harassment at INRS should intervene. Silence and inaction help harassment continue and everyone has a duty to stop it. 

Often victims are aware that they’re in a difficult situation, but don’t necessarily see it as being harassment. An outside perspective can help them better understand what they’re going through. As a witness, you can help the victim realize that action needs to be taken. 

Witnesses have an important role to play in maintaining a healthy and harassment-free environment. They can help victims break the climate of fear. As a witness, you don’t have to conduct an investigation or provide evidence that points to harassment. If you seriously suspect harassment is occurring, you should help the person break the silence.

How to intervene

Saying nothing is no longer an option. Unresolved conflicts, incivility and humiliation lay the groundwork for an unhealthy workplace and open the door to harassment.  

Witnesses can either help break down or contribute to maintaining the climate of fear and silence that fosters harassment. By giving their version of the facts, witnesses can prevent conflicts from escalating and help put a stop to them.  

Verbal intervention: The perpetrator must be named, informed that their behaviour, words or actions are causing discomfort and distress, and told that it shouldn’t happen again. Clearly draw the line between what is acceptable and what isn’t.

Physical intervention : Another option is to physically step in and alter the interpersonal dynamics. It only takes a few seconds. Move between the two parties to get an object or document or ask for some information. In a video that has been viewed over four million times, two people in a subway car are in the midst of a verbal and physical altercation. “Snackman” positions himself between the two, says nothing and quietly munches away on some chips.

Physical intervention is not possible in all circumstances. It may be necessary to seek help from others (e.g., a manager, professor or colleague) or call 911.

Create a diversion or interruption: Ask either person an unrelated question: “Can you help me with the photocopier?” “How do I…?” or “Michael was looking for you. You have to go see him right away.”

Support the victim: If you can’t intervene during the incident, you can get involved afterwards. Go see the person and ask if they’re OK. Say that you noticed the other person’s behaviour, actions or words. Encourage them to talk about it and seek help from the organization’s staff and resources. See the resources available.

Report the situation: Witnesses must report the situations they observe to a person in authority. If you have heard or seen something, it is your duty to help stop the situation. On the other hand, be aware that spreading rumours or distorting the truth by talking with colleagues can undermine investigations and damage the credibility of witness testimony. Employers have a legal obligation, but each employee has an obligation too.

What if I witness sexual violence?

After assessing the situation, if you can act safely, stop the sexual violence either be intervening directly or helping the potential victim escape the situation.  

If the victim is in danger or you are concerned for their safety or your own, call 911.

Available resources

It’s important to listen to the victim without passing judging or calling their experience into question. They should also be referred to resources that can provide help. Consult the resources available for victims of psychological harassment, discrimination, incivility, sexual harassment, and sexual violence.

Harcèlement psychologique et violences à caractère sexuel

Need help or someone to talk to?

Call 1 888 401-VACS (8227) or write to

Resources are available to the community free of charge and in complete confidentiality.