We’ve all been there. Someone makes an insensitive remark or uses a term that you know is at best insensitive or worse, is likely to be experienced as an “ism” – sexism, racism, homophobia. Yet we say nothing. Maybe we even find ourselves laughing and then beat ourselves up for having joined in on something with which we profoundly disagree. We tell ourselves that next time we will say or do something, anything.
What is going on? Why is it so very difficult to speak up? Why is bystander training even necessary?
It turns out that this is a very complicated issue, with many factors at play. First and foremost, most of us don’t know whatto do or say. We simply lack the skills that bystander training provides, to know how to address the situation in a way that will not escalate it into a potential conflict. And most of us will work overtime to avoid conflict! So, we stay silent and fume. Or we stay silent at the moment and tell multiple people about what this co-worker said that was so offensive, feeding a narrative about this individual that may or may not be accurate.
The literature on why bystanders fail to act outlines a number of additional causes. The organizational culture may not support this kind of action by bystanders. Depending on the organizational power of the speaker/actor, it may be perceived as the height of inappropriateness for anyone lower on the food chain to address such an issue. Depending on the behavior, it may even be behavior that the culture either implicitly or explicitly rewards. And depending on the organizational dynamics, others may not be able to speak up out of a genuine and well-founded fear of consequences that are simply too costly. For example, how likely is it that any employee will speak up about these kinds of issues to anyone who is higher than they in the organizational hierarchy. The higher up in the organization the speaker is, the less likely it is that anyone will give them this kind of feedback. This is unfortunate, since the more senior the speaker (organizationally), the larger the risk for the company.
We may not want to embarrass or shame the speaker (at least to their face), since shaming someone is a fast track to damaging a relationship, irrevocably we fear. “I know he doesn’t mean that the way it sounded,” we tell ourselves. “He’s a good guy. He probably just doesn’t know that that term just isn’t used anymore or just doesn’t know how it came across.” Bystander training helps surface these beliefs and fears, as well as providing tools for intervention.
Or perhaps others in the group are laughing and you feel that you must be the only one to feel this way, and so you discount your own experience, and just push down your feelings and move on. Depending on the context, there may be something called “diffusion of responsibility” in which we believe someone else will call the metaphorical 911. So, we don’t feel a pressing need to do so ourselves. Yet, without the tools that bystander training provides, will someone else really speak up? All the factors that influence us to stay silent are almost certainly operating for others.
Ultimately, why should we care? Why should any of us take the risk of speaking up – and there is a risk. A risk of causing uncomfortable feelings in others, with the very real risk of those feelings ricocheting toward us in the form of anger, disdain or even active retaliation. However, there are important, even profound reasons, for all responsible bystanders to speak up.
We each need to care. In New York City, we have no choice but to care. The new harassment prevention law now requires bystander training.
Regardless of the laws, there are real organizational costs for failing to care about this issue. First and foremost, silence sends a loud signal that these kind of microaggressions are acceptable in the organization. We’re not talking about blatant, obvious sexual, racial or homophobic/gender identity jokes, slurs, or taunts. The types of words, expressions and actions being discussed here are the subtler microaggressions that on their own, as one-offs, may not seem worth worrying about. Examples include calling women girls, using expressions like “open your kimono,” commenting about a woman’s appearance while purportedly discussing her performance, making assumptions about sexual orientation, etc. While they may not seem like a big deal, they nonetheless send a signal that the organization doesn’t notice or care. That’s why smart organizations that do care increasingly include bystander training in their sexual harassment prevention training, whether or not the law requires it.
In addition to the organizational signal of acceptance, these behaviors will be the icing on the cake of any discrimination or harassment complaint. In and of themselves, they may not be considered unlawful. Taken together with other more blatant behavior, it will add context and credibility to any negative narrative. In contrast, bystander training both equips bystanders to intervene and demonstrates that the organization supports their doing so.
The organizational literature on bystander training is unambiguous. When employees are truly engaged and working in an environment in which they feel respected, they do their best work. And this kind of employee engagement is highly correlated with profitability. No one is purporting it to be the only cause for profitability, but the correlation is undisputed. Allowing this kind of behavior without bystanders speaking up – either privately or publicly – works directly against the kind of employee engagement we’re all striving for.
The truth is that some of us will never be willing to take the risk, with or without bystander training. If you are one of those individuals, you can stop reading here – without shame or blame. You likely have very good reasons for not being able to take the risk. However, if you are someone who wants to speak up, who even feels compelled to speak up, stay tuned for Part 2 for some bystander training tips and techniques to make speaking up less fraught and more effective.