Think about the following three situations:

  1. You are part of an email list where the team discusses tasks and responsibilities, provides feedback, and communicates about work. One day, a workmate sends out an email mocking a colleague whilst leaving that particular person out of the mail trail.
  2. A series of informal messages erupt on your WhatsApp office group congratulating a team member of a particular gender on their recent achievement. Under the guise of humor, inappropriate comments are posted publicly on the chat.
  3. During video conferencing calls, you notice that one of your peers is rarely given a chance to speak, question, or present by your boss. Any attempts are interrupted or muted. In other casual conversations, you hear your boss making disparaging remarks about the community that your peer belongs to.

All of these scenarios have some form and degree of cyber harassment and bullying.

The question is: as an onlooker, what would you do – call out the misconduct or ignore it?

While most of us feel that we would certainly respond in some way, it often happens that we are torn between inaction and misreading the situation, especially when there is a group involved. In psychology, this is called the ‘Bystander Effect’, where the presence of others deters witnesses – or bystanders – from intervening. It creates a ‘diffusion of responsibility’ better known in laymen terms as, “Let others handle it.”

Combating Bystander Effect

The Bystander Effect was identified and named by social psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latane in 1968. It began as a way to study why many residents did not intervene to stop the murder and rape of Kitty Genovese in a New York neighborhood in 1964, despite hearing her pleas for help. Over the years, the Bystander Effect has been extensively studied in various contexts by psychologists, sociologists, and behaviorists globally to understand how the interplay of collective apathy and group dynamics have inadvertently let many crimes go uninterrupted.

In reality, the culture of silence is universal, which is why Bystander Intervention Training is crucial.

Bystander Intervention Training is a set of protocols designed to convert passive or silent watchers to active bystanders that intervene in healthy, appropriate, and safe ways. Beginning as a way to minimize instances of sexual assault in colleges and military academies, bystander intervention trainings are now popular across many corporate organizations as a means to empower employees to speak up and avert any kind of racial, religious, gender, political, or sexual harassment. It aims to make participant employees more proactive about disrupting and reporting workplace harassment through the right practices and channels.

Curious about how to respond in the three situations mentioned at the beginning? Tune in for the next post on Bystander Intervention Training and how you can use it.

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