Empower Your Employees to Be an Upstander


April 14, 2021  |  Hassina Obaidy


“Go back to where you came from!”
“You don’t belong here!”
“Didn’t the virus start in China?”
“Why Black Lives Matter? All Lives Matter, too”

Some of us may have heard these words in person, read them online, watched clips on social media, or have had these words said to us. It’s triggering. The 2020 US presidential election deepened a long-standing divide across the nation. Since the pandemic began, violence and bias against Asian communities have skyrocketed. When Black Lives Matter gained momentum, there was yet another divide among groups who supported All Lives Matter instead of Black Lives Matter. If we want to go further back in history, Muslims were constantly targeted as terrorists after 9/11.

Times of fear and anxiety can bring out the worst in people. As of late, Asian Americans have been the latest victims of that fear and hate. In the workplace (in person or remote), there are ways to be an upstander and an ally when an employee thinks someone is being verbally, physically, or even virtually harassed. An upstander is defined as someone who intervenes when an individual or group is being verbally or physically attacked, or bullied by others.

Here are three ways your managers and employees can proactively be an upstander for any colleague, especially during sensitive times.

Check-In On Your Employees During Sensitive Times

We come from different backgrounds with different beliefs, and sometimes, expressing our opinions and saying “we understand” might not help. It’s okay not to know what to say when a societal event negatively impacts a specific group or individual at work.

Before saying anything, ask your employees how they’re doing, what they need to feel supported, and how the organization can best help them. It is difficult for employees to bring up sensitive topics or even express their concerns and thoughts in the workplace. When you do check-in with your employees proactively, remember to be thoughtful, empathetic, and discreet. There’s nothing more awkward than bringing up a sensitive issue during a company-wide or team meeting and targeting a specific group or individual.

If a societal event is taking place, bring awareness to it on an organizational level. Tell your entire workforce that they have your company’s support and you understand that this may be difficult for them. The goal here is to establish a safe, transparent work environment.

Teach Employees on How to Step In Professionally

Employees are likely to feel vulnerable, scared, and freeze up when something inappropriate happens to them at work. According to Emtrain’s 2021 Workplace Culture Insights Report, “we saw a 7% decline in employees’ belief that their co-workers can accurately pick up on the mood in the room,” compared to 2019. (Read more in the report). Train your employees and managers to pick up the mood in the room, or this case, the virtual space.

If they see a colleague feeling uncomfortable or they notice an inappropriate comment, here are some ways they can step in:

  • Change the topic of conversation
  • Ask the victim a work-related question
  • If in-person, ask the victim if they’d like to go out for coffee or take a walk
  • Call the person out on their behavior right when it happens or pull them aside later (virtual or in-person)

Check out the blog post on How to Spot Bullying.

Remind & Align Your Workforce on Core Values

It starts with your core values. Do your employees know what your company’s core values are? Do your core values align with your DE&I goals?

An organization’s core values are the foundation to creating an ethical workplace. Emtrain found that Ethics is one of the three pillars to facilitating a healthier workplace. By weaving in Inclusion and Respect (the other two pillars), you’re strengthening the social fabric of your workplace. Norms and Practices is a key factor under the Respect pillar, which is defined as “Not just what is communicated, but what people actually do; what is acceptable workplace behavior and what is not.” Norms and Practices are what reinforce your core values. Check out the Workplace Social Indicators™ framework to learn more.

Core values are created to build a sense of trust with your employees and shape the workplace culture. Your workforce should live by them every day. Consider revisiting your organization’s mission and values statements to make sure they align with your diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. Your organization’s values guide employees to supporting one another and standing up for each other. Repeating your core values, sending them out in internal newsletters, or bringing them up at the beginning of each company-wide meeting can help reinforce your message.

Here are some examples of core values specific to DE&I:

  • We strive for excellence and recognize that our differences make us stronger. We respect and seek out inclusion of differences, realizing we can learn from each other. – The University of Nebraska
  • We create a more diverse and inclusive F5. Our differences—when embraced with humility and respect—drive smarter decisions, increased innovation, stronger performance, and a culture where everyone can be themselves. – F5 Networks
  • Be kind. In a competitive landscape full of talented people, empathy and kindness go a long way. Pivots have built a culture where inclusion and respect are a defining part of our identity. – Pivots

It all goes back to creating a shared understanding and common language of what harassment, bias, and even inclusion mean. We’re all human, and while some of us don’t intentionally say offensive terms or misbehave, these things happen! Being an upstanding employee is about creating a supportive environment and teaching the perpetrator a lesson when the opportunity presents itself.

Check out Emtrain’s resources and video-based microlessons on being an upstander and ally for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and Black employees.


diversity and inclusionethicsinclusionrespectupstander