What Is the Bystander Effect and What Can You Do About It?

Author: Tatiana Walk-Morris       

For more than half an hour, 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.” So began The New York Times article about the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964, a crime that gave rise to research on the psychological phenomenon known as the “bystander effect.”

Today, the bystander effect has become part of the vocabulary of the Me Too movement, where people witness incidents of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior — as well as intolerance or discrimination against women and people within the LGBTQIA community — and fail to speak out about it. According to an article in Harvard Business Review by three researchers (convn.org/hbr-bystander), the bystander effect occurs for two reasons: If others are present, we feel that they are responsible for intervening, and if no one intervenes, it can lead us to assume that the behavior is acceptable or tolerated. Also, if no one else says anything about an incident or situation, we may think that we’ve misunderstood what’s going on.

In the workplace, colleagues may witness poor behavior and for any of the above reasons — or because they fear retaliation — they don’t bring it to the attention of those in charge. How can employers circumvent the bystander effect? Here are some steps that business-events leaders and legal and career experts say organizations can take:

Diversify Company Leadership

Tamela Blalock, CMP, DES

Identifying unacceptable workplace behavior begins with company leaders, but homogeneous leadership teams will inevitably have blind spots, experts say. Diversifying leadership helps ensure that companies don’t normalize behavior that can be offensive to individuals. Employees in disenfranchised groups are often afraid to point out the lack of diverse leaders, so it’s up to white heterosexual men to speak up, said Tamela Blalock, CMP, DES, executive director of the Section on Women’s Health of the American Physical Therapy Association.

Empower Human Resources

Human resources departments often are not “empowered, respected, supported, and structured the way that they should be,” Blalock said. Typically in the business events sector, COOs or CFOs also take on human-resource management duties, or the department is understaffed and therefore ill-equipped to service all employees, she said. Human resources departments need to be a priority for companies in order to retain good employees and sustain growth, she added.

Johnnie White, CAE, CMP

When workplace misconduct investigations find wrongdoing, company leaders must enforce company policies, even if it means firing employees with whom they have close professional relationships, said Johnnie White, CAE, CMP, senior director of global education, meetings and strategic partnerships at the American Academy of Otolaryngology. “It’s leadership in the end,” he said, “that’s making the final decisions.”

Allow Anonymous Reporting

Organizations can hire an external organization to handle misconduct reports so employees don’t have to go to their superiors or internal teams for help. And when employees come forward with complaints, they should keep those complaints out of their employee files so that the bystander or victim won’t face retaliation. “You have to design a process where your lowest-level employee feels safe enough to report on your CEO,” Blalock said.

Employees often believe that HR and in-house legal staff are ultimately working to protect the company rather than the employee, so creating an anonymous hotline or safe space to report misconduct or harassment is vital, said Desirée Knight, CMP, director of education and meetings at the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association.

Companies could consider using a third-party app to collect anonymous complaint reports, said Kimberlee Gee, a Washington, D.C.–based attorney and founder of Kimberlee Gee Legal. Apps like STOPit (stopitsolutions.com) enable employees to easily report workplace misconduct.

Blalock also suggested hiring an outside firm to conduct a company-wide survey to spot areas that need improvement. “We have to welcome information that a policy that we may think is fair is seen as horrible or even abusive,” she said.

Maintain an Open-Door Policy

Supervisors should let employees know that they can come talk with them at any time about what they’re experiencing in the office, Knight said.

Alice Hoekstra

Don’t wait for employees to come to you with complaints, said Alice Hoekstra, an Ontario, Canada–based career consultant. Managers should go to workers and make them feel welcome, she said, building a rapport by setting up meetings and regularly checking in with them. “When checking in on employees, it’s important that managers expressly ask, in one-on-one meetings, ‘Are you doing alright with everyone here?’” Hoekstra said via email. “It may seem a bit overdone, but often, employees are afraid to be the first one to bring up an issue.”

Protect Against Retaliation

Employees often fear losing their jobs or being passed over for promotions and other opportunities if they report workplace misconduct, especially if the grievance involves a superior. This fear is especially true for workers of color, Knight said.

When an employee reports an inappropriate incident, managers and executives must reassure employees that they won’t face ostracism. And by speaking out, White said, they may save someone else from experiencing abusive behavior in the future. “If an employee reports an incident where they witnessed another employee being harassed and the employee that was harassed doesn’t want to cause trouble by speaking up [because] the accuser may be a senior staff member, the organization must take the report received from the witness just as seriously as if it came from the person who was harassed,” White said. “Unfortunately, employees that may be put into this situation do not want to say anything as they think it will jeopardize their position with the organization.”

But by taking the report seriously and conducting an investigation into the matter, White said, the organization may discover that this is a repeated behavior perpetrated on other employees. In which case, he said, “they are able to stop the situation from happening not just to one person but many.”

Update Training

As cultural norms evolve, so should training procedures for staff and managers. White suggested updating company policies, particularly those pertaining to marginalized groups, and retraining employees every year.

Given that many professionals rely on business events to stay up-to-date on their industry, business-events professionals can use such opportunities to educate people on the dangers of complicity, Blalock said. “By being a bystander, you are committing an action,” she said. “You are enforcing [bad behavior] every time you see it and do nothing.”

Ascent is supported by Visit Seattle and the PCMA Education Foundation.