You may have read a story reported in the newspapers on 29 January this year about a distressed young man on a platform at Caulfield Railway Station, Melbourne, shouting “I want to die”, and apparently at risk of throwing himself onto the tracks. It was reported that the vast majority of about 40 onlookers took no action, either to speak to the teenager, or to prevent him from either hurting himself or taking his own life. Only a former nurse, Jenny Szymanski, approached and spoke to him, fearing he was about to jump in front of the next train.
Ms Szymanski recalled that only one other bystander, a man with a young child, asked her to help and she approached and spoke to the young man until emergency services arrived. However she was appalled that the vast majority of the 40 people did not act.
How can we make sense of the inaction by the majority? Did those people really not care? And if they do, why did they not try to help?
The bystander effect
To understand this event, we need to recognise that humans are ‘programmed’ to avoid potentially dangerous situations. When we observe unusual or potentially threatening behaviour in others, we exercise extreme caution. A strong automatic reluctance to intervene stems from a desire to avoid harm, and if more than one person is present there is also a tendency to rationalise the decision not to intervene by passing on responsibility to others.
This is the ‘bystander effect’, the phenomenon that when a person needs help or is in danger, most bystanders are reluctant to intervene and simply stand by without assisting. In fact, the more observers there are, the less the chance of any one person intervening because of “the diffusion of responsibility.” (i.e. ‘someone else will intervene’). At such critical situations, intervention is much more likely if only one person is present.
The bystander effect in the workplace
While the example reported in the news is obviously a very serious example of potential harm, and specific responses are recommended in these critical situations, the ‘bystander effect’ also applies in the workplace, in relation to occupational violence, workplace bullying, harassment, and discrimination. In fact, a number of factors in the dynamics of the workplace appear to further decrease the likelihood of fellow employees intervening to stop what is clearly poor or harmful behaviour. It is therefore crucial for employers to be aware of this in order to overcome this reluctance to intervene.
Consider a group email sent by an employee to a number of employees, critical of a particular employee but leaving that employee out of the email loop. Let’s assume that you receive the email and note that the criticised employee is your friend. What do you do? What if the employee is not your friend? Would your response be different?
There are many reasons why bystanders at work are likely to ignore a colleague who is being bullied, sexually harassed or otherwise mistreated, especially where the perpetrator has some authority. Reasons for ‘bystander apathy’ at work fall under the following three broad categories:
- The bystander has no understanding of why the behaviour is wrong, e.g. they cannot recognise the behaviour as bullying or sexual harassment
- The bad behaviour is ‘normalised’ in the eyes of the bystander due to the toxic culture of the workplace, e.g. the employer tacitly encourages the behaviour by rewarding or condoning the perpetrator’s behaviour or turning a blind eye
- In strongly masculine work cultures, bystanders see ‘strong management action’ (needed to ‘get the job done’) rather than bullying, and even blame the target for failing to stand up for him or herself, or whinging
- The perpetrator often ‘grooms’ bystanders, and the target, by emotional manipulation and by weaving a deceitful narrative to isolate the target and establish that the target deserves the poor treatment
- The bully’s response minimizes the real impact of what is going on – e.g. ‘That’s in the past, let’s forget it and move forward’
- The bystander fears retaliation or victimisation against themselves by the perpetrator. This is most acute where the perpetrator uses implicit or explicit threats against any bystander who helps the target, including threats of performace management or even redundancy.
- The bystander is reluctant to intervene due to a lack of faith in the complaint process or the likelihood of justice or change, based on the past record of the employer
- The bystander has no faith that they themselves will be protected by management if they intervene or blow the whistle, even fearing retaliation or victimisation by management against themselves
- The flip-side of fear of retaliation is that the bystander often desires the perpetrator’s approval for advancement in the workplace, whereas often the victim is not in a position to advance the bystander’s interests, being subordinate
- As a result of opportunism, some bystanders will act as the perpetrator’s supporters, lie and spread rumours, and even defend the bully in disciplinary or grievance proceedings
‘Negative’ or ‘passive’ bystanders
Bystanders who do not intervene range from those who actively encourage the bad behaviour, to those whose silence and failure to intervene tacitly encourages the perpetrator and allows the behaviour to continue. Research shows that a failure to intervene also has a serious negative effect on the mental health of the bystander, and on morale and productivity in the workplace.
The role of ‘supportive’ bystanders or ‘upstanders’
Bystanders therefore play a crucial in the dynamics of workplace misconduct because they have the power to end it by standing up to the perpetrator or reporting it to management. Bullies, in particular, are cowards and when confronted they are likely to desist. Supportive bystanders therefore act as ‘upstanders’, not just passive ‘bystanders’.
If you’re a bystander to inappropriate conduct, you can take action to become a supportive bystander (or upstander) by:
1. Not encouraging or supporting the behaviour:
- Do not stand by and watch
- Make it clear to your colleagues that you won’t be involved in the behaviour
- Do not encourage bullying behaviour by harassing, teasing or spreading gossip about others, verbally or on social networking sites like Facebook
- Do not advertise the poor treatment of the employee, especially online
- Do not acknowledge, reply or forward messages or photos that could be hurtful or embarrassing to a colleague
2. Directly intervening by telling the bully that their behaviour is unacceptable, and by defending the victim
3. Reporting the behaviour to HR, a manager, a colleague, a union or a whistle-blower process. If sufficiently serious (e.g. sexual assault), report it to the police. If the bullying is occurring online, report it to the owner of the website (e.g. Facebook has a process for reporting incidents).
4. Approaching the victim/target to:
- Let them know you are aware of the behaviour and that it’s not acceptable
- Encourage them to ask for help, go with them to get help or provide them with information about where to go for help
- Let them know they’re not alone – victims of bullying, in particular, feel isolated and lonely
How can your organisation encourage bystanders to intervene?
Beyond the ethical response of the individual bystander employee, it is crucial for employers to recognise the potentially crippling ‘bystander effect’, and take steps to overcome this tendency, by encouraging employees to intervene, and supporting those who do so, in both symbolic and practical ways.
A number of overarching factors in any organisation will influence the extent to which employees will intervene or report, at the local level, even where management or HR are unaware of the issue. A key factor influencing the bystander’s decision whether or not to intervene is the extent to which the employer supports victims of misconduct (and bystanders who intervene), and how the organisation responds once a complaint is made.
The employer can therefore consider taking the following steps to encourage bystanders to intervene and report inappropriate behaviour:
1. Establish clear behaviour policies that state what behaviour is required, what behaviour is outlawed, what the consequences for breach are, and implement them consistently
2. Ensure employees know how to recognise inappropriate behaviour, and how to report it:
Provide all employees with training (induction and ongoing) on:
- Unlawful behaviours, including discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment
- How to recognize these behaviours
- The role the ‘supportive bystander’ plays and how to intervene effectively (consider including in your policies a positive duty to report or intervene)
- How to report inappropriate behaviour, including who to go to, and any whistle-blower procedure and protections
Provide managers with training on:
- How to triage or respond to a complaint, including whistle-blowers (if applicable)
- How to protect the victim and bystander (whether anonymous or not)
3. Thirdly, employees must believe that if they report the behaviour, it will be dealt with fairly, and not ‘swept under the carpet’, or result in a backlash against themselves (as the bystander) or the victim.
This is the broader cultural issue. Bystanders will only have confidence to intervene or report bad behaviour if they have confidence that the organisation takes reports seriously and deals with them effectively and fairly. If the previous whistle-blower or bystander reporter was victimised or made redundant, or if the employer is clearly turning a blind eye to ‘collateral damage’ caused by a ‘rainmaker’, they will not intervene or report.
Finally, consider establishing a confidential Whistle-blower procedure (this can help overcome the bystander’s perceived fear of intervening)
Training at Worklogic
 http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/nurse-appalled-after-commuters-fail-to-help-distressed-teenager-at-caulfield-train-station-20150128-1303jo.html  The study of the term ‘bystander’ began in social psychology and criminology after an incident in New York in the 1960’s in which a young woman, Kitty Genovese, was raped and stabbed to death over a half hour period, while about 38 witnesses watched or heard her screams but did not intervene. The term ‘bystander apathy’ was subsequently used to describe the tendency of onlookers not to intervene in critical situations; https://www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/part-3-motivations-and-actions-bystanders-theoretical-perspectives-bystander; B. Latane and M. Darley, The unresponsive bystander: Why doesn’t he help? (1970); A. M. Rosenthal, Thirty-eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case (1964).  And a specific range of responses are recommended in such situations (for advice, call Lifeline 131 114, Beyondblue 1300 224 636, or Kids Helpline 1800 551 800)  For a list of more recent literature and research on the ‘bystander effect’ in bullying situations, see http://www.iawbh.org/bylit  See the following useful discussions, at https://www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/part-3-motivations-and-actions-bystanders-theoretical-perspectives-bystander; http://bullyonline.org/index.php/bullying/133-bystanders; http://www.bullyfreeatwork.com/workplace-bullying-the-bullys-spell-over-the-bystander/  This fear is not illusory. A whistle-blower study of the Queensland public sector, for example, found that 71 percent of whistle blowers suffered official reprisals and 94 percent were the subject of unofficial reprisals: William De Maria and Cyrelle Jan, ‘Eating its own: the whistleblower’s organization in vendetta mode’ (1997) Australian Journal of Social Issues, February 1997, Vol. 32.  On the role of bystanders in bullying, see ‘When is a bystander not a bystander? A typology of the roles of bystanders in workplace bullying’, Edith Cowan University, Research Online, ECU Publications 2012, by Megan Paull, Maryam Omari, Peter Standen; http://ro.ecu.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1591&context=ecuworks2012  http://bzaf.org.au/respond-to-bullying/  See the excellent fact sheets at http://www.miningoilgasjobs.com.au/our-blog/january-2012/workplace-bullying–how-to-become-a-supportive-bys.aspx, and https://www.humanrights.gov.au/what-you-can-do-stop-bullies-be-supportive-bystander-violence-harassment-and-bullying-fact-sheet  The Federal Department of Parliamentary Services has listed a number of measures known to protect and encourage whistle blowers to come forward: Department of Parliamentary Services, ‘Whistleblowing in Australia – transparency, accountability… but above all, the truth’ (2004-05). Research note No. 31, 14 February 2005, ISSN 1449-8456; http://www.aph.gov.au/binaries/library/pubs/rn/2004-05/05rn31.pdf