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See something, (don’t) say something: New research on witnessing workplace harassment

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Time and again we see a familiar story play out in the media and in our work as workplace investigators: troubling behaviour on the part of one or more employees that many other employees witnessed, but never reported to anyone. This is one of the most vexing problems those of us who care about addressing and preventing workplace harassment and discrimination face: why do so many people see or hear about inappropriate behaviour in the workplace and remain silent? And how can we motivate these witnesses – who we refer to as bystanders – to speak up?

We know that, in general, the more people who witness a troubling event or emergency, the less likely any one of those witnesses is to intervene. This phenomenon, known as the “bystander effect” has been studied by psychologists for decades.[1]

In an effort to understand the bystander effect and the role of bystanders in the workplace context, we at Rubin Thomlinson conducted our own research into this topic back in 2017. We found that 79% of the respondents to our survey had witnessed or heard about harassment and discrimination in their workplace. Interestingly, we also found that 87% of bystanders chose to do something in response to what they saw or heard, most commonly by telling the person engaged in the behaviour to stop (33%) or by telling someone in HR or management about the incident (27%).

A recent study by the U.K. organization Spot echoes our own research in some respects and provides more detail on why bystanders don’t report inappropriate behaviour. The study, entitled “Witnessing workplace harassment and discrimination: Overcoming the ‘social contagion’ of toxic work culture,” was conducted by Spot, researchers at U.K. universities and various NGOs between February and May 2019. Approximately 900 people from the U.S., U.K. and Australia completed a survey on harassment and discrimination in the workplace.

Consistent with our own research, the Spot study found that 79% of survey participants reported witnessing harassment and discrimination in the workplace within the past five years, with 42% witnessing an incident in the past year. Of those who witnessed, harassment and discrimination, 77% did not report the incident to HR. [2]

The most common reasons participants gave for not reporting what they witnessed were: “(1) being worried about the consequences, (2) not wanting to interfere, (3) not knowing that witnesses could report, (4) not wanting to be a snitch, and (5) not knowing how to report.”[3]

Interestingly, the study also found that 67% of those who witnessed harassment or discrimination in the workplace told someone outside of work about the incident – typically friends and family members.[4] So, these bystanders often did speak up about what they witnessed, just not to someone who could actually address the harassment or discrimination.

The results of this research are consistent with what we know from psychological research about the bystander effect in general. Many bystanders don’t intervene or speak up about what they witness because they are afraid that they’ll embarrass themselves or suffer negative consequences for doing so, or because they simply don’t know how to respond.

The good news is that this research also suggests that bystander non-intervention is not an intractable problem. The most common reasons given in the Spot study for non-intervention can be overcome with policies and training that address the role of bystanders. Employees should know what bystanders are, that the organization values bystander intervention and that they will not suffer negative repercussions for speaking up about any harassment or discrimination they witness. Moreover, employees should be trained on how to intervene if they witness inappropriate behaviour in the workplace, including both direct interventions in the moment to stop the behaviour and after-the-fact interventions, such as avenues for reporting.

With the right policies and training in place, employee bystanders can serve as a valuable resource in the process of addressing and preventing workplace harassment and discrimination.

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[1] See, for example, Latané, Bibb and John M. Darley. “Group Inhibition of Bystander Intervention in Emergencies.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 10, no. 3, 1968, pp. 215-221.

[2] Shaw, Julia et al. “Witnessing workplace harassment and discrimination: Overcoming the ‘social contagion’ of toxic work culture.” Spot, 2019, https://talktospot.com/research/ at p. 21.

[3] Ibid at p. 32.

[4] Ibid at p. 25.