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Ethics and ‘The Bystander Effect’ in the Workplace

Whistleblowing Incidents Influenced by The Bystander Effect

I have previously blogged about “The Bystander Effect” and how it accounts for situations where observers of wrongdoing stand idly by without intervention while harmful behavior goes unchecked. Those who might be able to act to stop the wrongdoing do not do so because they do not want to become involved. A “let someone else do it” attitude rules the day.

In a post on the Corporate Social Responsibility Newswire, Kirsty Matthewson refers to “The Bystander Effect” as situations where passers-by don’t offer assistance when other parties are present. She raises a number of questions with respect to why passers-by don’t act:

  • Are we reticent to assist for fear of being ‘under-qualified’ to help effectively?
  • Is there an assumption, perhaps, that others will help or that if no one else is helping, why should we?
  • Is the severity of the situation diluted by the presence of others, of collective inaction (a phenomena known as ‘social proof’)?
  • Is it a coping strategy to prevent information overload?
  • Or are we simply paralyzed by indecision?

Studies have shown the greater the number of parties present, the fewer the incidents of assistance; we take our cues from the behavior of others and it is, after all, less stress and hassle to ourselves to assume that others will intervene.

Matthewson contends that in the context of The Bystander Effect, knowing that we are part of a group seems to give us substantive reason to act less as individuals. But if you are present in a situation then you should take responsibility for your involvement, whether that means actively participating or reconciling with yourself that you will not do anything. If you opt for the latter we must question why. To engender responsibility in yourself and others is integral to combating apathy and to fostering a moral and ethical society.

One of the worst vases of bystander apathy occurred this past June when a fast-food worker in full uniform in the city of Salem, New Jersey viciously attacked a young mother in front of the victim’s young son and the entire attack was caught on tape and later posted on Facebook.

In the video, a woman wearing a McDonald’s uniform is shown attacking another woman. The victim falls to the ground and while on the ground, the suspect punches the victim approximately 20 times. As the attack is going on, the victim’s toddler son is seen pleading for the suspect to stop and tries to kick the suspect in an attempt to make her stop. At one point during the video, the suspect can be heard saying: “You better get your son before I kick him in the face too!” At the end of the video, the suspect appears to spit on the victim as she lays helplessly on the ground.

The bystander effect has major implications for ethics in the workplace. A recent survey of 500 senior financial services executives working in the U.S. and U.K. showed that 26 percent of respondents had witnessed wrongdoing in the workplace. Philippa Foster Back OBE, Director of the Institute of Business Ethics, commented,

“This survey tallies with [a] survey from the Institute of Business Ethics that has also shown 20% of the British working public have seen wrong doing at work, but only half of those have done anything about it. Most cite it is none of their business, a concern that nothing will be done about rectifying the misbehavior or that they personally will suffer for raising the matter. This level of persistent Bystander Effect is worrying.”

Whistleblower motivations are the subject of considerable contention. It may be that the majority of whistleblowers do so for the greater good; it has also been suggested that potential whistleblowers are more inclined to report if they feel the issue could personally affect them. Some contend that the Dodd-Frank Act incentivizes whistleblowing by providing a “bounty-hunter’s award,” and that may account for the uptick in whistleblower’s reports.

There may be implications for reporting corporate fraud if the Bystander Effect carries over to whistleblowing. New findings by the Ethics Resource Center (ERC) that were reported in May 2012 challenges long-held perceptions of what constitutes a “whistleblower.” For years, the term has been used to describe those employees who go outside their company to report wrongdoing.  They may do so because they do not trust their company to handle the issue appropriately or because they are angry or frustrated after their attempts at internal reporting proved to be futile. According to “Inside the Mind of a Whistleblower,” a supplemental report to the ERC’s 2011 National Business Ethics Survey (NBES), whistleblowers almost always make some effort to root out wrongdoing internally before going outside the organization with their concerns.  The new report said that only two percent of employees go solely outside their companies to report misconduct. 

It seems clear that while internal whistleblowing is a common practice, the decision to go outside the company’s own compliance structure is rarely made. Fear of retaliation is, no doubt, the obvious reason. The Bystander Effect may account for some of the reluctance as well. For example, if I work for a company and suspect fraud may be occurring, then I may first ask whether others have noticed and/or reported the fraud. I may be concerned that if others have remained silent, then why should I go out on a limb?

We no longer can stand idly by and watch as abusers attack others or fraud is committed in the workplace. We have an ethical obligation to become involved. I don’t say this just because it is the right thing to do. I say it because we now live in a world where abuse is all too common whether caused by cyber-bullying or simply physical abuse because the abusers are not able to control their emotions. We have seen the danger when those closest to perpetrators of mass killings who exhibit signs of unbalanced emotions say nothing and innocent people are beaten or killed. We all need to step up and be counted whether in the workplace or in life.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on November 13, 2014. Professor Mintz teaches in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: