The #MeToo movement has moved harassment front and center as an area of concern and consternation for companies of all types and sizes. That’s a good thing. This is an issue that deserves awareness as a first step toward minimizing or eliminating these negative behaviors in the workplace.

Teaching employees how to speak up and intervene effectively can help to support a climate and culture of respect. There are three important steps that organizations can take to educate employees about their role as active bystanders and to make it safe and comfortable for them to do so:

  1. Awareness
  2. Attitudes
  3. Action

In a previous post, we talked about the importance of awareness and some steps to take to help ensure that employees are well-informed of the types of behaviors that are desired in the workplace, as well as the behaviors that are not. Here will take a look at the next step, Attitudes.

Attitudes that Prevent Employees from Being Active Bystanders

Despite all of the time and effort that you might put into educating, informing, and training employees about your expectations of them in terms of supporting a positive workplace climate, awareness is not enough. Even when employees know what is expected of them and understand the types of behaviors that are inappropriate in the workplace, various attitudes and beliefs may keep them from stepping up to serve in an active bystander role. 

One very common attitude that keeps even very well-intentioned employees from stepping forward is referred to as “the bystander effect.” This refers to a well-documented phenomenon that occurs when several people may be present when a questionable situation occurs. While each member of the group may recognize inappropriate behavior, there is a tendency for people to think “someone else will do something,” or “if nobody else is doing anything, maybe this isn’t really a problem.” 

This kind of response could be improved though if employees know that others are concerned. In fact, as individual employees take a stand to step in, they send a clear supportive signal to others that “this is not okay” and that we are all responsible for supporting a positive culture. 

 Why We Act the Way We Do

There are reasons that people behave the way they do based on both psychological and sociological principles. For instance, the tendency to assume that you are in the minority in terms of your attitudes and, therefore, to remain silent when you observe what you feel is inappropriate is referred to as “pluralistic ignorance.” The flip side of this, something that can make people feel confident in their beliefs even when those beliefs may be inappropriate, is referred to as “false consensus” or the feeling that they are in the majority in terms of their thinking. 

Combatting These Misguided Tendencies

These types of common, but misguided, perceptions can be very damaging to workplace culture. The good news is that organizations can take steps to avoid these misguided attitudes and beliefs:

  • Help employees build awareness of themselves and others to create a culture of caring in which they recognize that in most cases their coworkers are similarly concerned about harassment or biased behavior.
  • Encourage supportive attitudes by using the results of climate or employee surveys to measure employee attitudes and document areas of potential concern.
  • Share these findings with employees through training and other communication campaigns to help correct misperceptions and combat negative or harassing behaviors in the workplace. 
  • Continually reinforce the company’s desire to create and sustain a safe and positive culture, upholding the importance of employee assistance in doing so by serving as active bystanders.

A healthy climate is important for all employees. Most are committed to being supportive of their colleagues. But, sometimes, their attitudes may be influenced by the perceptions they have of the action, or inaction, of those around them. Addressing these attitudes is an important step in creating a safe and supportive workplace.

In the next, and final, post in this series we will address the third A: Action

The Power of Bystander Intervention

Provide your workforce with the strategies to 'break the silence' and foster a culture of active intervention.