The Bystander Effect

Nora Akins

It is time for business to take a wide look at anti-harassment training. There is evidence to support that training raises awareness of what harassment is and that it is prohibited. One problem is most employees will not be self-aware enough to acknowledge they may be the harasser. Helping employees become aware of the level of civility in their workplace and the harm of micro-aggressions may be time well spent. But getting employees to report an incident of harassment is the big job.

Creating a safe and respectful workplace may open the path to reporting harassment. Research and popular culture show us if a hostile work environment exists, so does the bystander effect. As we learned from the Harvey Weinstein scandal; most insiders knew of his pattern of sexual harassment and abuse. The wider approach to training is to encourage employees to speak up.

Globoforce’s WorkHuman Analytics & Research Institute conducted a survey of more than 3600 employees and found 82 percent felt a sense of belonging at work, but only 65 percent feel safe offering an unpopular view. Individual contributors are less likely to speak up than senior management and women less likely to speak up than men.

The bystander effect may be more significant. The bystander effect happens when many people know about an issue. The more people who know, the less responsibility each person feels to report it. It becomes easy to pass the accountability on to others and less likely for anyone to speak up. This diffusion of responsibility allows the person to stay safe by saying nothing. It is risky to speak about something that is negative in the workplace. At the very least, one will be questioned.

The Academy of Management conducted a number of studies about the bystander effect and found consistent results. When subjects believed they were the only ones who knew of an issue, they were 2.5 times more likely to speak up. When multiple employees knew about an issue, each one became less willing to talk about it. Even when subjects felt confident about their ability to speak up, they did not speak up if they knew their peers also knew of the issue.

Managers can help bystanders speak up by thanking the person and rewarding their individual courage. Creating a climate of openness requires making it safe to take interpersonal risks. The environment becomes psychologically safer anytime a manager can reward someone for sharing an idea or respectfully challenging others. Dan Coyle, author of The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups recommends sending clear, strong and continuous signals that employees belong and need to feel seen, heard and connected with everyone else. Coyle recommends a daily practice of sending signals to show you genuinely care.

Conversely, handing someone a complaint form when the person has finally mustered the courage to report an incident does not convey caring. Moreover, employers cannot require the form to be completed for an investigation to begin. The duty to investigate is prompted when the employer learns of an incident of misconduct including an off-handed comment like, “That’s just the way Harvey is.”

Nora T. Akins, of Strategic Management provides management training and refines human resource systems to help employers build respectful workplaces. Reach Nora at 219 873-1735 or 

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.