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Can Employers Overcome the Bystander Effect?

Posted by

Lynne Callister

on 15 Apr 2020

Can Employers Overcome Bystander Apathy?

If you witnessed a crime, would you report it? What if dozens of others were witnesses? If a colleague did something illegal would you speak out? Often it's easier to be a bystander.

New York. March 1964. 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was brutally murdered near her home in Queens. For "more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens" witnessed the attack, scaring off the attacker twice, yet no-one intervened to prevent it. Bystander apathy in action.

The case scarcely made headlines at the time. That changed when New York Times columnist Martin Gansberg drew attention to it two weeks later. It is now a psychology classic.

Of course, much more is known about the phenomenon of 'bystander apathy' today. There has been substantial research into it, notably with Latané and Darley's smoke-filled room.

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Factors affecting bystander apathy

There is no guarantee that people will act altruistically out of concern for others with no obvious reward. Crucially, the likelihood of someone intervening depends on a number of factors:

  1. Recognition - realising that something is wrong, or someone is in need of help
  2. Relationships - the closer your connection is with the victim, the more willing and better equipped you may be to get involved
  3. Ambiguity and indecision - not knowing when and/or whether to intervene or get help
  4. Ignorance - feeling that you are unqualified to provide any assistance
  5. Embarrassment - if witnesses fear looking foolish, they may be reluctant to get involved
  6. Personal risk - the level of danger associated with getting involved or fear of the consequences
  7. Diffusion of responsibility - interestingly the greater the number of witnesses, the less likely each will be to intervene (this collective inaction is also referred to as 'social proof'). 

The bystander effect is real. It explains why people tolerate a bullying manager, a predatory supervisor, the salesperson coercing customers, and even why products flaws aren't fixed. In one study, men witnessing sexual harassment were reluctant to intervene for fear of being seen as weak or unmasculine by male peers.

The bystander effect was also evident in the Libor scandal, Danske Bank's money laundering shocker, the Airbus bribery case, with Harvey Weinstein, and countless other compliance cases. No shortage of witnesses, but most chose to remain silent - perhaps unprepared to shoulder the burden of speaking out. That's risky for any company, of course. So what can you do about it?

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The bystander effect within compliance

People who witness wrongdoing in the workplace tend to weigh up what they will gain or lose by intervening before doing anything. A number of factors will affect their intervention.

  • They are unsure whether the behaviour is actually wrong - a good reason why your Code of Conduct needs to be ever-present and regularly reinforced
  • Misconduct has been normalised - others witness the behaviour, but don't react or appear to ignore it (remember the diffusion of responsibility)
  • The company appears to condone wrongdoing - perhaps it appears complicit or to blame, or the employee feels that they "deserve all they get"
  • Uncertainty or ignorance - they don't know the rules, particularly if they are new hires
  • Fear of consequences- of reprisals, retaliation, humiliation or victimisation

A couple of other factors come into play, in addition to the above. First is the relationship between the witness and that of the person exhibiting unacceptable behaviour. Clearly, where the witness is junior and the perpetrator senior, the bystander effect will be significant, and particularly so where there is direct line management involved.

Finally, we have the concept of plausible deniability. If no-one can prove you were either aware or complicit in behaviour, then there isn't any incentive to speak out. This becomes more strong the larger and more geographical spread a business becomes. And remember, if all of your employees are working from home not only can they not see, neither can they be seen.

How employers can overcome the bystander effect

The Genovese case illustrates that sometimes, despite many witnesses, serious wrongdoing and crime can go unchallenged. We may not be able to prevent every incident. But we can create the right environment to encourage witnesses to act more altruistically and overcome apathy.

  • Remind colleagues about policies and codes of conduct regularly
  • Pay extra attention to new recruits as they can be important allies - they may be most likely to spot wrongdoing and notice poor culture, and less susceptible to entrenched "We've always done this" habits so give them confidence to challenge and ask questions
  • Urge colleagues to speak out if they witness wrongdoing - especially if they know other people have seen it too. It's better to have multiple reports than none at all!
  • Educate staff about the bystander effect - research studies show that being aware of bystander apathy principles helps to double their willingness to offer assistance or intervene
  • Create the right culture of 'psychological safety' - where people feel safe and empowered to share ideas and speak up, and crucially people will listen
  • Tailor the message according to the three compliance personas - so the accidentally non-compliant are nudged into more altruistic behaviour
  • Reassure people that their views truly matter and are valued - that they won't be punished for discussing 'open secrets' or 'speaking truth to power'
  • Learn from recent research and past mistakes in different sectors - for example, the Francis Report was a game-changer and led to wide scale reform in the NHS
  • Appoint champions and role models - to offer quick informal advice, reinforce the right behaviours, and model the right attitudes
  • Consider rewarding those who speak out - to encourage the same behaviour in others and foster engagement
  • Institute 360° and peer reviews - so that wrongdoers have no place to hide and you promote continuous improvement
  • In global teams, assess how cultural barriers may adversely affect people's willingness to speak out and how you can counter that - e.g. by making it safer to report wrongdoing, by offering out-of-hours 24/7 support etc.
  • Provide mechanisms for people to "do the right thing" and speak out - by providing a confidential or independent whistleblowing hotline to encourage reporting
  • Support whistleblowers - if you don't, they may resort to counterproductive and more damaging behaviour (e.g. a drop in productivity, absenteeism, team sabotage, or resignation)
  • When staff leave, conduct exit interviews - with nothing left to lose, they may finally be willing to expose all that's wrong with your company, even their underlying reasons for leaving

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