Stand up, don’t stand by: Beating bystander effect in your culture

Have you ever watched on while a co-worker was treated unfairly?

Stand up, don’t stand by: Beating bystander effect in your culture

Bystander behaviour may be a term you’re familiar with in a general sense, or when considering news reports, but what about in the workplace? In psychological terms, bystander behaviour is when the presence of other people causes you to not intervene or to ‘stand by’ when witnessing problematic behaviour.

Have you ever watched on while a co-worker was treated unfairly? Have you ever ignored overhearing an unprofessional or inappropriate conversation between a co-worker and your boss? Have you ever worked somewhere “everyone” did something that was known to be against company policy? Then you’ve been party to some bystander behaviour. 

An Open University study from 2020 asked participants how they had felt witnessing harassment in the workplace and why they had not intervened:

  • “The incident made me realize that my workplace wasn't as good as I thought it was. It also made me realize why my own promotion was postponed twice, even though my performance was exceptional.”
  • “It made me disappointed in my company and definitely less trustful. I felt they weren't as concerned as they should have been.”
  • “I felt that emotionally, I was more disconnected since it wasn't the workplace I envisioned so it definitely worsened my mood towards the workplace.”
  • “Everyone was upset and felt bad for her but no one knew if it was really true or if it was their place to tell our boss or HR.”

Within the study there are hundreds of quotes all saying more or less the same thing, there was nothing positive to come from having witnessed harassment in the workplace and feeling unable to intervene for whatever reason.

Understanding the severity of bystander behaviour

Reading this, you may have instantly remembered numerous examples where you may have acted in this way, for many reasons. You may have simply not understood the severity of the situation initially, you may not have thought it was your place to act or you may simply have not wanted to get involved. You are not alone, studies show that more people tend to show bystander behaviour in the workplace than perhaps they would in another situation.

In a very well-known experimental study that gave way to the term ‘bystander effect’, psychologists Darley and Latané found that in a situation between an individual and stranger who was seen to be in need of emergency assistance, 85% of the people in the study intervened to help. When the situation was in a group of six and one needed emergency assistance, only 31% of people intervened.

When considering bullying in the workplace, a study by found that bullying and other types of abusive behaviours cost businesses $300 billion annually in lost productivity, absenteeism, and turnover. They also found that a person who is feeling bullied or harassed at work spends over half their working day doing things other than working thereby significantly reducing productivity.

A survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute found that 48.6 million workers in the U.S. have experienced direct harassment numbered and witnesses to workplace harassment was a further 30.6 million. This means that almost 80 million workers in the U.S. alone have been affected directly or indirectly by workplace harassment.

The effect of co-workers intervening in workplace harassment has been shown to be significant enough to stop this behaviour in the immediate instance and to empower the victim to report the harassment should they choose to. Stepping up in these scenarios makes you an active bystander.

Beating bystander behaviour

So how can we be active bystanders? It is not always easy, on the contrary, doing nothing is often an easier path to take. But being an active bystander does not always require you as an individual to take direct action, particularly if the situation is somewhat dangerous or our intervention could worsen the situation. There are a number of ways that we can help without direct intervention:

  • In a medical emergency, call emergency services or seek a first aider if not an immediate emergency
  • If something has been overheard but the situation has diffused itself, speak with the affected individual to let them know that you are aware of the situation and ask if they would like to take it further
  • As employers, ensure that reports of harassment are taken seriously and that employees feel safe to report such matters
  • Workplace training exists to help reduce workplace harassment and how to react should you be a witness or have a report made

Being aware of the culture of your workplace is a good way to try and ensure that employees do not have to stand by if a colleague is being mistreated, however, inevitably these situations often arise and the reaction to this can be as important as the outcome.

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