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What Is The Bystander Effect in the Workplace?

Harassment & Discrimination

What Is The Bystander Effect And How Does It Affect The Workplace?

Humans are social beings and how we behave is shaped not only by our own decision making, but also by the socio-psychological contexts in which we find ourselves.

As such, a person's reaction to an emergency situation may have more to do with situational factors that come together at the moment of crisis, than with concrete personality traits: the same person may react to an emergency situation one way if they are the only witness -- and a different way if others are present.

This article talks about what is the "bystander effect" -- when people fail to provide help when it is obviously needed. It also addresses how the bystander effect can crop up at the workplace -- and why it is important to counter it with "bystander intervention" awareness and training.

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What Is The Bystander Effect?

The term "bystander effect" refers to a social scenario in which a wrongdoing happens and, despite multiple other bystanders/witnesses present, no one moves a muscle to help or to get help.

The Kitty Genovese Case As Prime Example Of The Bystander Effect

The 1964 high-profile case that prompted much scientific research, as well as a national conversation about why people help or don't help, was the brutal murder of a young woman by the name of Kitty Genovese. One evening, Ms. Genovese was walking home from work to her apartment complex in Queens, New York, and was physically and sexually assaulted repeatedly by a man with a knife. Despite there have been dozens of witnesses looking out from the surrounding buildings, after nearly a half-hour struggle with the attacker, Ms. Genovese lost her life, without a single person intervening.

The Bystander Effect Explained

When the news of Kitty Genovese's murder broke, there was an avalanche of public outrage, along with much speculation about how something like this could happen. Some even believed that the "unresponsive bystander" phenomenon was something specific to New York City, that there was something extra jaded about the nature of New Yorkers that predisposed them to unprecedented apathy and heartlessness.

The Social Psychology Behind The Bystander Effect

Five years after the Genovese's case shook the nation, social psychologists Latané and Darley published their new research, titled Bystander Apathy, in "American Scientist". Their research suggests that baffling inaction in the face of an emergency situation is not exceptional to New Yorkers or any other urban community in particular: it is something that happens to humans in certain socio-psychological climates. Specifically: when an emergency occurs, the more bystanders there are, the easier it gets to "not help".

Why Do People Fail To Act In Emergency Situations?

Rather than assuming that each individual bystander made a choice to ignore Kitty Genovese's pleas for help out of indifference or malice, let's consider the possibility that the psychological dynamic created by the mere presence of others can inhibit a person's willingness to help someone in need. Here are the main psychological inhibitors operating behind the bystander effect.

Pluralistic Ignorance

When all those neighbors peeked out of their windows to witness Ms. Genovese's horrific assault, they also saw each other looking out of their windows. At this point, it is likely that each person said to themselves or whomever was with them: "Good, someone already saw this and surely they already called the police. Help must be on the way." Due to this faulty assumption made by everybody at the same time (known as "pluralistic ignorance"), no one felt strongly compelled to take immediate action, which turned deadly for the unfortunate young woman.

If faced with the same situation as the only witness, at least some of those same people may have intervened in a meaningful way (if only to dial the authorities from the safety of their homes).

Diffusion Of Responsibility

The term "diffusion of personal responsibility" refers to what happens when you increase the number of bystanders: the more other participants there are in an emergency situation, the less personally responsible each person feels to "step up to the plate". None of us want trouble: the presence of others gives our minds an excuse to assume that "someone else" is already handling the situation.

The presence of a police officer, a doctor, or another authoritative/capable-seeming individual can heighten the diffusion of responsibility among the random people present, as it makes it easier to believe that the situation is now 100% under control.

Paralyzing Ambiguity

Sometimes "something is going on" but it's not clear whether it's an emergency or not (e.g. "Is she shrieking because he's hurting her or because they're a couple in love being playful?") Most people try to avoid looking foolish in front of strangers: this makes us very cautious about "overreacting" to an uncertain situation before we have all the facts straight (of course, by then, it could be too late!)

The Bystander Effect At The Workplace

The American workplace is comprised of individuals of different cultures, genders, races, sexual orientations, and religious beliefs. In a perfect world, social diversity would only be celebrated, but in today's reality, it can also translate into tensions, misunderstandings, and hostilities that can take the shape of workplace discrimination, inappropriate behaviors, bullying, and even sexual violence.

The bystander effect comes into play when employees witness unfair or abusive treatment of their coworkers and fail to intervene -- due to the above-described "diffusion of responsibility" (also, sometimes due to fears of retaliation from the higher-ups).

The Legal Consequences of Bystander Effect At The Workplace

When acts of discrimination, bullying and other inappropriate behaviors go unreported and unchecked at the workplace, unlawful "discriminatory behaviors" along with a "hostile environment" (both considered "workplace rights violations") may take over, sabotaging the well being and the productivity of employees and making the company vulnerable to legal action and dire financial repercussions.

The Key Take-Away About The Bystander Effect: Awareness & Training Are A Must!

Since the bystander effect happens primarily due to the lack of awareness and preparedness, it follows that bystander intervention training can dramatically reduce its occurrence.

EasyLlama has the Bystander Intervention e-training for your company!

EasyLlama's easy and fast-to-use mobile training will teach your employees how to be active bystanders -- as opposed to passive or oblivious ones. The comprehensive but snappy modules on EasyLlama will provide them with protocols for safe and reasonable ways to recognize/intervene in/report abusive and problematic conduct at the workplace without confusion or fear.

Truly, workforce training of this nature pays off in more than one way! Institute a company culture (and policy) that encourages employees to look out for one another -- and watch employee satisfaction (and hence, productivity) shoot through the roof!

Written by: Maria Malyk

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