Become an Upstander not a Bystander

Kairen Harris
April 12, 2017

In this post, we explain how to encourage your staff to become an upstander not a bystander when they witness inappropriate behaviour like bullying or sexual harrassment at work.

Most organisations expect that staff will assist them in upholding their values and standards of behaviour by reporting transgressions. This is important as the impact of bullying and harassment in the workplace is serious. In this post, we explain how to encourage your staff to

For individuals, this can include a wide range of impacts. These include: reduced self-esteem, poor self-confidence, anxiety, nervousness, withdrawal, insecurity, suspicion, bitterness, anger, self-hatred, depression, PTSD, concentration difficulties, insomnia, chronic fatigue and ultimately self-harm or suicide.

Vicarious trauma can also occur for witnesses exposed to this conduct against colleagues. For the organisation, the impacts are broad ranging too; disengagement, lost time, lost productivity , poor performance, high turn-over and lack of creativity are some of the unwelcome impacts.

The impact of someone intervening to stop bad behaviour or to support a target of it, can be profound and positive. In reality, however, people are more often bystanders than ‘upstanders’ when bad things happen.


Deciding to become an upstander not a bystander

There are four stages involved in an onlooker deciding to intervene to stop bad behaviour and become an upstander:


Stage 1: Noticing what is occurring

Modern workplaces can make noticing bad behaviour at work difficult. Supervisors may be physically distant from their reports, working in a different location or even a different country. They may be separated in time, for example on a different work pattern. As such, they simply can no longer see what is occurring in their work team. Noise and crowds can also impact whether people observe what is going on around them, so counter intuitively, open plan offices may not improve what people notice, as they are accustomed to ‘tuning out’.


What can you do to improve this at work?

1. If you don’t have line of sight over all your staff, make an extra effort to ask about what is occurring and create effective feedback loops.

2. Keep talking about appropriate workplace behaviours and impact of poor ones, so staff are sensitised to the issues of conduct. Shortly after the shocking murder of Jill Meagher in Brunswick, another young woman was attacked and pulled from her bike riding in the same area.

Four people came to her rescue. In each case, they said that what had happened to Jill had made them realise that it was the duty of all citizens to be keep an eye out and come to the aid of their fellows.

3. In the bicycle case above, the young women also called out for help. Training people in workplaces to actually ask for support greatly increases the chances of other people coming to their aid. Research suggests that the more specific the request, the more likely the response. It is harder to ignore someone who has asked you to help them.


Stage 2: Evaluating what is occurring

In deciding something is wrong, people rely on many inputs, including personal experiences and values, religious beliefs and cultural norms.

People are also greatly influenced by how they see other onlookers respond, especially where those others are senior people or people with other forms of power. Where senior people ignore rule transgressions, act inconsistently or themselves act in breach of rules, the entire rule system falls into disrepute.

Where managers promulgate humiliating rituals as part of ‘motivating’ staff to achieve sales targets, as recently alleged in regard to Appco charity collectors, no corporate value of respect will be believed by its workers. Where businesses (as has recently been reported) cheat employees by not making payments required by law, be that wages, overtime or superannuation, their standards of integrity are immediately in disrepute.


What can you do to improve this at work?

1. Set clear workplace standards, embed them in work processes and communicate them regularly.

2. Ensure standards are enforced at all levels of the organisation at all times, especially by people with positional power.


Stage 3: Deciding whether to act

There are many good reasons why passers-by do not intervene or assist in upholding the rules ,. Culturally, the language we use from school onwards – informer, dobber, sneak, tell-tale, snitch, grass- does not reflect upstanding in a positive light.

What happens to whistle blowers across the globe is equally hardly encouraging; with Julian Assange languishing in confinement; Edward Snowdon stranded in Russia; Karen Silkwood killed, and, more recently, Dr Bejamin Koh’s disputed departure from CommInsure. Add to this, the fear of verbal or physical abuse, victimisation or exclusion, it is perhaps surprising that anyone gets involved in ‘someone-else’s’ problem!


What can you do to counter this at work?

1. Promulgate a culture of ‘welcome feedback’ from the bottom of the organisation, to the top. Highly hierarchical structures, where input is discouraged, militate against reporting.

2. Make it easy to report inappropriate conduct. A quick, clear, safe and accessible system that offers an option for anonymity is ideal.

3. Do something when you receive complaints. They are a gift that cost someone courage.

4. Treat whistle-blowers like heroes not villains.


Stage 4: Deciding how to act

Intervening in wrong-doing to protect a victim or to call out inappropriate behaviour takes courage and skill.

Make sure you train your staff in how to intervene effectively in tense situations and help them to become active upstanders. Help them act together to improve behaviour standards.

Implementing these actions in your workplace will help create a culture that doesn’t tolerate bad behaviour and where everyone works together to stamp on it when it occurs. And that is something that everyone wants.


About Kairen Harris

Kairen HarrisKairen Harris brings an impressive set of HR skills and experience to Worklogic, obtained from an extensive, international HR career.  Prior to joining Worklogic, Kairen was HR General Manager for Shell in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific islands, responsible for delivering the workplace policies, processes and culture that would best promote values of gender equity, inclusion and respect for people.

For a free, confidential discussion on creating a culture that doesn’t tolerate bad behaviour at your workplace, please contact Kairen via email or give her a call on (03) 9981 6500.

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