Bystanders and workplace harassment: How inaction can lead to workplace complaints

A frequent scenario repeats in our work: Offensive conduct, multiple witnesses (or “bystanders”), never reported. Investigators know that bystanders play a key role in workplace complaints; their evidence is often integral to discovering what happened. Bystanders can also play an important role in preventing – or minimizing – workplace misconduct from ripening into a situation where our services as workplace investigators are critical.

In this article we take a closer look at the role of bystanders in reporting workplace harassment in the workplace and we identify some of the ways employers can empower employees to speak up about what they observe.

Bystanders & Reporting Workplace Harassment

Behaviour can be so pervasive in a workplace – as a result of unacceptable behaviour being repeatedly brushed off, or through even more corrosive responses of omission or commission –  that it becomes a de facto part of the fabric of workplace culture. When the dust settles on an on investigation, the most common question is why someone witnessing objectionable conduct would make the conscious decision not to intervene. While we witness a lot of human behaviour in our investigation work, we aren’t psychologists and shouldn’t pretend to be experts about the causes of what we observe. We do know that the “bystander effect” is a well established concept in the criminal justice context. In that field experts list  psychological safety, fear of violence, and embarrassment as some of the reasons why people who witness objectionable conduct may choose not to intervene. Research even suggests that the more witnesses who observe a crime in progress or an emergency, the less likely any one of those witnesses are to intervene.1

The bystander effect has application to inappropriate workplace conduct. A 2019 study on witnessing workplace harassment and discrimination found that an astounding 79% of participants witnessed some form of harassment or discrimination in the workplace in the past five years. Most witnesses disclosed the incident to someone – 67% reported telling someone outside of work (primarily family and friends). Significantly, 77% of those who observed something that amounted to prima facie harassment and discrimination didn’t tell someone in a human resources capacity about the incident.2

Witnesses gave an array of reasons why they didn’t report the conduct: 34% said they were worried about the consequences, 29% said they did not want to interfere, 22% said they were unaware that witnesses could report harassment, 18% said they “did not want to seem like a snitch” and 16% said they didn’t know how to report.3

Empowering Bystanders

Research demonstrates that respectful workplace and diversity training can be effective in encouraging bystanders to report workplace harassment. Employees who are aware of institutional policies and procedures are more likely to use those methods when confronted by challenging circumstances.4

As part of respectful workplace and diversity training employees should be made aware that that the right to work in a safe and respectful workplace is the law. In Manitoba, these rights are enshrined in The Workplace Safety and Health Act and The Human Rights Code; other provinces have similar legislation as does the federal sector governing federally regulated employers. Unionized employees governed by a collective agreement generally have a non-discrimination/non-harassment provision in such agreements.

Here are some of the ways organizations can encourage reporting:

  1. Affirm, confirm and reaffirm – in writing and in regular follow up communications – the organization’s commitment to a safe work environment free from harassment;
  2. Promote awareness, communication and training in the workplace aimed at preventing harassment or violence, a commitment to diversity, and an avoidance of implicit bias;
  3. In cases where harassment has been known to occur, investigate as necessary, and be proactive, prompt and consistent with measures taken when harassment has been demonstrated;
  4. Establish and enforce consistent procedures for providing support and assistance, initiating complaints and supporting the parties involved; and
  5. Employ measures to restore workplace relationships to foster a healthy workplace.

Increased reporting of harassment isn’t just socially desirable. It assists organizations in decreasing the probability – before it is too late – that bullying and harassment will become part of the workplace fabric. The human and economic costs to the organization – in workplace stability, not to mention the operational costs associated with HR processes, external investigations, loss of productivity, absenteeism, and high rates of employee turnover5 – are simply too much to ignore.

1 Cook, Kevin, 1956- author. Kitty Genovese : The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime That Changed America. New York :W. W. Norton & Company, 2014.

2 Shaw, Julia 2019. Spot: Witnessing workplace harassment and discrimination: Overcoming the ‘social contagion’ of toxic work culture, 2019, p. 6.

3 Shaw, Julia 2019. Spot: Witnessing workplace harassment and discrimination: Overcoming the ‘social contagion’ of toxic work culture, 2019, p. 7.

4 Jacobson, R.K., Eaton, A.A. How Organizational Policies Influence Bystander Likelihood of Reporting Moderate and Severe Sexual Harassment at Work. Employ Response Rights J30, 37–62 (2018).

5 While no direct figures on the economic costs of workplace harassment exist for Canada, a 2008 report from the United Kingdom estimated that costs associated with absenteeism, turnover and productivity resulting from workplace bullying in that country in 2007 were estimated at about £13.75 billion (Giga et al. 2008). Specifically, the report found that 33.5 million days were lost by organizations in the U.K. due to bullying-related absenteeism, and that close to 200,000 employees may have left organizations as a result of bullying.