By Dr. Sabrina Brandon Ricks, SBR Workplace Leadership Services
Are you familiar with the bystander effect also known as the Kitty Genovese Syndrome? This phrase refers to a lack of response to a situation where multiple individuals witness a traumatic event and everyone assumes that someone else will take care of it, resulting in no one addressing the issue. According to History magazine, in 1964, Kitty Genovese was raped and stabbed outside of her New York City apartment while 38 witnesses saw or overheard the attack take place from their overhead apartment windows. Since they were aware that others could also see and hear the attack, they hoped that someone else would come to her aid in some way. None of them did and Ms. Genovese was left to succumb to her injuries.
Society has seen this bystander effect take shape in many ways throughout history, and most recently in the workplace. Employees may be yelled at by fellow colleagues and/or managers. Employees are in some cases confronted and disrespected by customers as well. At what point do you say enough is enough and as a witness, step in and say something? It is certainly a risk, however, given the fact the rates of violence are up, it is worth stepping in to prevent the chance that a situation may escalate to another level.
To make the choice to step in as a witness, here are some of the strategies you may consider:
Sometimes just your presence alone will deter a situation from escalating out of hand. For example, if you walk past a door in the workplace and overhear yelling and shouting inside, lightly knock on the door and step inside. You may not even need to say anything; your presence alone de-escalates the situation. If not, there may be a need to call security.
There may be a need for a conversation to be had with the perpetrator and/or the target. These could be two separate conversations to bring to the awareness of both parties that you have observed the behaviors and are concerned. This does not mean you are being “nosey,” but are showing a genuine concern for the well-being of those in the organization.
Your conversation with the target may be a supportive and encouraging one to let them know that you acknowledge what has been happening and to ensure they know you are there as a safe person for them to talk to. This support helps targets more than you may realize.
Your conversation with the perpetrator may be one of acknowledgement that you are aware of the hostile behavior and offer that there may be other, less threatening ways to handle a situation. Ultimately, bad behaviors in the workplace affect witnesses as well as customers, which in turn will impact the bottom line for an organization when unaddressed.
When all else fails and you feel there has been no change, you should report what you have witnessed to the appropriate authority for your organization. That authority may be a human resources department, union representative, ombudsperson, employee assistance office, or otherwise. If there is no recourse there, you may seek to assist the target find a labor lawyer or file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. You exhaust all avenues for assistance, because no one should be mistreated in the workplace.
For further training opportunities, workshops, and more, contact SBR Workplace Leadership Services. They specialize in the deterrence and prevention of bullying behaviors in the workforce. Make your voice heard and help someone in need. They will appreciate that you did and that you could have prevented the escalation of a problem. Happy Bullying Prevention Month!