Person A: Were you there when it happened?
Person B: No, I wasn’t, but I heard it was quite terrible.
Person A: It indeed was. The kind of language they used for him for being gay (or the kind of things that were said to her just because she has family responsibilities or the kind of looks he got because he is differently abled) it was so demeaning and hurtful. It shook me up. Poor thing.
Person B: Ohhh, that sounds tragic! What did you do then?
Person A: Nothing, what could I have done? I saw him walk away and that was the end of it.This is just how it is, there’s no changing people or their attitude. Anyway, what’s for lunch?
End of discussion.
That’s how most conversations surrounding an act of discrimination go at the workplace. What could I have done? Well, to start with, a whole LOT!
Ever wondered why does the workforce really need someone to champion and advocate a policy for zero tolerance? Why can everyone not assume the responsibility of being intolerant towards discrimination in any form and of any kind? That’s possibly a grey area of discussion, and one for another time. In this particular piece, we will see what can we really do? It’s not much individually, maybe makes a difference to one life (not that that is less), but it sure makes a volume of difference when these little acts are compounded over a period of time.
Bystanders - Who they are and what power they have
While most of us are fairly familiar with what bystander essentially means, here’s just a quick recall as per Oxford:
Bystander is a person who is standing near and sees something that happens, without being involved in it.
By definition itself, if you now recall the number of times you were witness to an unpleasant event but chose not to or were unable to get involved to offer support or help to the victim, it would be countless. In context of the workplace, more often than not, individuals end up being bystanders to many unprofessional behaviour(s) or act(s). For instance, a superior being disrespectful of another team member, team members discriminating against and often even isolating another team member, derogatory comments being passed on someone on account of their life choices and personal preferences, and so on and so forth.
Every such instance where we should have spoken up, but chose not to, owing to any reason, that makes us a bystander, and a passive enabler of unhealthy behaviour and a deteriorating workplace culture.
With inclusion needing to be weaved into workplace culture, it is not just the job of the D&I team, or the HR team or even leadership, to enable the culture. Sure advocacy and design for making a workplace inclusive, and the push to prioritize this change would come from them, but to make that vision a reality, bystanders and also allies, need to be more actively involved in organization-wide initiatives as much as day-to-day instances to raise awareness and build a culture of inclusion.
In an article on prevention of sexual harassment, the authors bring to fore the role of bystanders, which would be ever so relevant even in the context of discrimination:
“The legal and procedural system of addressing SH at the workplace is currently designed so that the onus of reporting and stopping the harassment lies primarily with the target. At the same time, we often see examples of seemingly-callous behavior on the part of bystanders – people choose to turn a blind eye or take a passive role as observers of SH because of the fear of consequences (formal or informal, especially if the harasser occupies a senior position) of engaging with a situation that is not inherently ‘theirs’ to deal with.
One way to reconcile these observations is to recognize that others have incredible untapped action potential. These ‘others’ include witnesses, bystanders, indirect observers who hear about an incident later, and of course those ‘in charge’ – managers and organizational leaders. Unburdening the target by diffusing active responsibility to others is an understudied and ignored avenue. These ‘others’ have a powerful range of behaviors they can choose to engage in, even though the most effective way to intervene will differ based on situation, roles of those involved, organizational culture and several other factors.”
How can bystander intervention programmes help
According to a study by Public Health England, “Bystander programmes focus on giving people the skills to recognize and safely respond to problematic attitudes and behaviours that contribute to a culture where violence occurs.” While the study primarily cateres to tackling sexual violence, these trainings go a long way in equipping bystanders in identifying and responding to any form of discrimination. Here is what the study says:
“We are all bystanders, all the time. We witness events unfolding around us constantly. Sometimes we recognize events as being problematic. When this happens, we might decide to do or say something, becoming an active bystander (either in the moment or at a later stage), or to do nothing and remain a passive bystander.
There are many factors that will influence why we decide to intervene or not. When we do decide to intervene, we are sending a clear message to the wrongdoer that their behaviour is socially unacceptable. Social norms determine the rules of behaviour for given social groups or social situations."
"If messages about certain behaviours being unacceptable are constantly sent and reinforced within a community or group, then the boundaries of what is considered acceptable behaviour will shift.”
Empowering bystanders for safe intervention
Emphasizing the need to empower bystanders, in conversation with People Matters, Sneha Suresh, VP & Head – Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), Wells Fargo India and Philippines, suggested “It is imperative that organizations empower individuals to call out discriminatory behavior irrespective of their titles or roles...There is a need to empower bystanders and allies, especially in this context, due to the historic societal discrimination against under-represented communities. The accountability of building safe spaces does not lie with one person or one team; this is every person’s responsibility. This isn’t an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ conversation, and hence, the importance of integrating allies and individuals from the communities in driving change is very important to mobilize any progress in organizations and society at large.”
As organizations across the globe strive strive to boost the focus and impact of DEI strategies, a critical element that remains untapped for many, is skilling passive bystanders and empowering them to play their role in making the workplace a space with zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind. Conversations would then be around standing up for one another instead of moving on from uncomfortable instances that left bystanders speechless.
To start with, here is how corporates can work towards transforming passive bystanders into active advocates:
- Make people aware of their responsibility in making the workplace inclusive and non-discriminatory
- Talk about what is unacceptable instead of assuming everyone knows
- Recognize, not as a celebration, but the impact of what speaking up can do for colleagues who need that visible vocal support at the workplace
- Significance of the role of bystanders must be emphasized and reinforced by leadership. Leaders are the very first segment of the workforce who help communicate the organization's stand on inclusion, zero tolerance and building a safe community at the workplace. The stronger the message, the easier the path to build allies across hierarchies and functions
By shining a light on the visible impact to culture, societal and workplace, that bystanders can make, corporates can play an instrumental role in accelerating inclusion. This will surely require effective trainings to equip employees with needed skills to make the move from inaction to action, enabling them to intervene safely and neutralize workplace instances - even if virtual - and engage in constructive conversation with their peers at fault, apprising them of their unacceptable behavior. This will not only improve the culture but also build psychologically safety at the workplace.
How soon organizations scale efforts in this segment will shape their ability to bolster the support towards DEI, beyond leadership, advocacy and policies.
Bystanders indeed are a strong weapon in the DEI arsenal. It’s time to bring them forward.