If you’re an observer of current affairs, you’ll have noticed a new social phenomenon of commuters taking videos of racial abuse by fellow passengers. Initially, there was outrage at the footage – why was no-one around the victim doing anything? In more recent footage, members of the public are now standing up and saying, ‘that’s not on, and I won’t stand by silently and let you do this’.

This is an example of bystanders in action. It is a new and powerful frontier for eliminating unacceptable behaviour in our society, and it is one employers can harness to improve the culture of their workplace, their employees’ engagement, and reduce the risk of claims of unlawful discrimination and harassment.

The term ‘bystander’ arose from research into a tragic murder in New York in 1964. Kitty Genovese was on her way home when she was attacked by an armed man in a ‘respectable’ neighbourhood. Her screams went unaided. In the half hour or so it took for Kitty to be killed, not one of the 38 neighbours who admitted to hearing her screams went to help her (only one called police). They all had time to do something, but the vast majority failed to act, even by contacting police.

Two psychologists went on to investigate what stops people from helping or intervening in situations like these1,and their research spurred on others. We now know that a number of factors are at play in whether a person will intervene to assist another. Aside from fears for your own personal safety, these include:

  • Noticing there is a problem: Being in a hurry, in a group, or plugged into technology decreases your attention to a potential problem,
  • Interpreting the problem as one where help is needed: Does the person need someone else to intervene, or do they have it under control?
  • Taking responsibility: If there are lots people around (as in Kitty’s case where the attack occurred in a crowded neighbourhood) you are less likely to act and more likely to think someone else will help. Whether you know strategies to assist also plays a role,
  • Group membership: The (harsh) reality is you are more likely to help if the person is from the same ‘group’ as you. This can change depending on the context, it could be race, gender, or whether you barrack for the same football team2.  

This research is now being used in a new context: workplaces. A 2012 report published by the Australian Human Rights Commission ‘Encourage. Support. Act! Bystander approaches to sexual harassment in the workplace’ has examined what we can learn from bystander approaches to make a significant difference in workplace culture.

We know from our practice that sexual harassment continues to be an issue for many employers. AHRC statistics show that one in four women and one in six men experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the past five years3. Its impact can be wide and varied, and is not limited to the victim and perpetrator alone. Research shows that bystanders often take sick leave from work or leave the organisation4, and recent high profile cases show that some situations do not conclude quietly, and the brand (and bottom line) damage can be significant.

Developments in law mean that once a claim is made, it is increasingly difficult for an employer to show it was not liable for the actions of a rogue employee. A recent Federal Court decision indicated a preparedness not only to ask if an employer had a policy and training, but analysed the suitability of that policy and training for its organisation5. The court had regard to non-binding codes of practice in reaching its conclusion that the policy was inadequate. The bar is getting higher. Prevention is now the key.

So what else can an employer do to prevent this rogue behaviour? The answer lies in harnessing the efforts of the bystander in your workplace, colleagues who might intervene to ‘call out’ bad behaviour and provide support, and in doing so change the culture of your organisation. It is a strategy which is being promoted by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission in its recently released ‘Guideline: Sexual Harassment’.

An effective bystander strategy involves addressing each of the factors described above, to motivate your staff to intervene before, during or after they observe sexual harassment or other inappropriate behaviour. It involves up-skilling your staff so that6:

  • They notice there is a problem: Research shows that there are certain myths associated with sexual harassment. For example, that perpetrators are always more senior to the target, that men cannot be harassed by other men, or that women fabricate the problem. Training that tackles these myths will increase the likelihood of staff noticing there is a sexual harassment issue in the first place.
  • They interpret the problem as someone needing help: Research shows that a victim that is passive and accepting is less likely to be assisted, the conclusion being, ‘it can’t be that bad’. The focus, instead, should be on the behaviour of the perpetrator in assessing whether sexual harassment may have occurred, to increase the likelihood of intervention.
  • Taking responsibility: Bystanders can be encouraged to intervene not only during or after the conduct occurs, but also in behaviours that sustain these events e.g. those ‘innocent jokes’ in the workplace. Bystanders are also more likely to intervene if they feel they know how to respond and that they will be supported in doing so.
  • Group membership: Training strategies that enhance collegiality amongst your staff, the feeling that they are all in this together, can increase the likelihood of bystanders intervening and colleagues ‘looking out’ for one another.

You need a policy. You need training customised to your environment, your people, your industry and your organisation’s issues. But ultimately what you need for prevention is for bystanders to call the behaviour out.

This is where real change can occur. In the cases that cross our desks, many examples of sexual harassment had precursors to the conduct, where alarm bells were ringing for bystanders but they didn’t act. When this happens, the problem snowballs, and can very quickly go from once-off low end sexual harassment, to at the worst extreme, sexual assault7.

If you involve your bystanders as part of your strategy in the workplace, not only will you decrease the likelihood of the behaviours occurring, and the need to call a lawyer in, but you will increase your organisation's productivity and engagement.