The role and expectations of bystander employees: the missing piece of the puzzle?
While much attention continues to be paid to the implementation and maintenance of effective whistleblowing and speak-up frameworks (which tend to focus predominantly on reporting post-event, coupled with safeguarding the ‘reporter’ from any adverse consequences), and to the importance of a creating a ‘psychologically safe’ environment in the workplace, there has to date been relatively little focus on the real-time interventional role of the employee bystander. For example, in a scenario in which an employee observes ‘toxic’ conduct directed at a colleague by a fellow employee, such as bullying, harassment or racism, should the witnessing employee have an obligation to intervene on behalf of the ‘victim’ (in addition to an expectation that they subsequently report the incident)?
Interestingly, there has been even less focus on the role of the employee bystander in misconduct situations involving a perpetrator colleague, when there is no human ‘victim’; or if a client’s best interests are at risk of being compromised.
In our experience, many organisations’ workplace culture frameworks (including, equal opportunities and anti-harassment policies) do not contemplate – whether sufficiently clearly and practically, or at all – active bystander intervention in such invariably tricky situations, in which employees may find themselves, as witnesses.
We explore whether culture-oriented organisations may be missing an important trick by effectively overlooking the potential real-time interventional role of employees who observe a colleague’s inappropriate behaviour – the so-called employee bystander. In the context of this article, “employee bystander” means a member of staff who: (i) observes inappropriate (business or non-business-related) behaviour within the workplace – such as: sexual or racial harassment, bullying, intimidation or exclusion; or conduct which would improperly disadvantage a client; or secure some other form of untoward benefit, to the corresponding detriment of a client; or (ii) happens to witness integrity/reputation-related misconduct by a colleague outside of the office.