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Harnessing the Power of the Workplace Bystander

Updated: Jun 11, 2021

One of the important lessons in the recent US trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd was the powerful role of bystanders.

Two courageous people played critical roles in Chauvin’s conviction, taking action at the scene and giving court testimony. Teenager Darnella Frazier filmed the homicide to provide indisputable evidence of events. In her testimony, she said she felt like she had failed him. She said she couldn’t do anything to stop Chauvin but would not walk away because she knew what was happening was wrong. Minneapolis off-duty firefighter, Genevieve Hansen, also gave testimony saying said she tried to provide medical attention, eventually calling 911 to report the police. Unlike this trial where there were active witnesses who were highly motivated, bystander apathy is a psychological phenomenon where people are less likely to help when others are around. Bystander research started with a horrific assault in New York in the 1960s where 38 witnesses did not come to the aid of the victim or call police.

Why Bystanders Act or Not

There are a range of theories why bystanders may act or not.

One is whether the incident creates sufficient psychological arousal in witnesses to provide the motivation to do something (such as was the case for Frazier and Hansen).

Another theory is that when there is more than one witness, responsibility is diffused. Bystanders may assume someone else will take action and do nothing.

Bystander action can involve weighing up consequences of acting or not. Perceived rewards include fame, receiving gratitude and self-satisfaction. Perceived costs of acting include effort, time, personal risk and resource loss, and of not acting, shame, guilt and disapproval.

A current example of activating bystander behaviour is the social change advertising that aims to reduce family and domestic violence in Australia. The 2021 campaign is centred around the concept of “If you see disrespect, unmute yourself”. This approach has the bystander ‘calling out’ behaviour when they witness disrespectful behaviours, even if it’s the behaviour of family or mates. This tries to offset the cost of taking an interpersonal risk by saying something against the cost of not acting.

The issues of relationships, identification, social cohesion and in and out groups are relevant to whether people take action to intervene or report an incident. For example, where there is low social cohesion, bystanders are less likely to act.

Culture is a consideration. For example, witnesses are more likely to intervene for people in the same cultural background. Cultural differences can also explain why bystanders respond differently.

For example, the concepts of ‘mates’ and ‘dobbing in’ are culturally charged in Australia taking roots from its convict heritage and grew through the Gold Rush and with bush life where hardships coalesced people against authority and the harsh environment. ‘Dobbing’ is ingrained in our culture or identity as anti-Australian, particularly where mates are involved.

Bystanders in the Workplace

Companies rely on bystanders to challenge and report misconduct in a workplace context. Without active bystanders, including whistle blowers, companies can miss incidences of fraud, unethical conduct, unsafe behaviour, discrimination, harassment and abuse.

It is necessary but not sufficient to have whistle blower policies, processes, and external hotlines for reporting to activate bystanders in the workplace.

Issues such as personal relationships, national culture, power, company culture and psychological safety, engagement of employees and accountability all come into play. The perceived cost of bystander action can be very high including impact to relationships with colleagues, loss of employment, reduced incentives, pay and promotion and vilification. This can result in a fear of or lack of speaking up or low motivation to report.

A good example of this was the recent AUSTRAC, ASIC and APRA actions against Westpac for its anti-money laundering performance. An investigation into the non-financial risks associated with these actions found that, despite having good whistle blower systems and external hotline, employees feared that they would get into trouble for speaking up and described the Westpac culture as a “good news culture”.

Bystanders can help to shape a safe workplace. In terms of sexual harassment in the workplace for example, bystanders are four times more likely to take action than victims are to make a report. By calling out sexual harassment in the workplace, they can help reset behavioural norms.

Harnessing the Power of the Workplace Bystander

So what are the steps you can take to harness the power of active bystanders in shaping ethical, safe and inclusive workplaces? Here are some of my tips.

  • Implement active bystander training.

  • Cue employees to bystander reporting as a leadership priority and promote rewards of acting.

  • Be sensitive in communications to cultural issues.

  • Measure the current level of psychological safety in your company. Take action based on results.

  • Keep watch for markers of declining psychological safety including employees not speaking up in meetings, no accountability for mistakes, lack of challenge or discussion on hard topics, turnover.

  • Work on employee engagement and sense of collective ownership in the company’s reputation and performance.

  • Train leaders and employees on their obligations under whistle blower legislation, policy and process.

  • Encourage feedback through multiple channels, constructive discussion and a learning culture.

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