Stand by Me... Or Not: The Science of Human Inaction


When silence speaks: Understanding Bystander Effect at Work

In recent years, the bystander effect—a psychological phenomenon where individuals are less likely to help a victim when other people are present—has emerged as a critical factor in several high-profile corporate scandals. From the football fields of Penn State to the executive offices of Fox News, Volkswagen, Uber,  Wells Fargo, and Commonwealth Bank, the failure to act in the face of wrongdoing has had devastating consequences. These cases, and even more in the history of Australian Royal Commissions, highlight how a culture of silence and inaction can permeate organisations, leading to significant reputational damage, legal repercussions, and a loss of public trust.

At Penn State, the harrowing abuse by football coach, Jerry Sandusky continued for years, partly because key figures failed to take decisive action. Similarly, at Fox News and Uber, pervasive cultures of harassment and discrimination were allowed to fester as employees and leaders turned a blind eye. Volkswagen’s “Dieselgate” scandal and Wells Fargo’s fake accounts debacle and Commonwealth Banks Financial Planning Scandal 2014 further illustrate how unethical practices can thrive in environments where individuals assume someone else will intervene. These examples underscore the urgent need for organisations to foster a culture of accountability and empower employees to speak up against misconduct, thereby mitigating the destructive impact of the bystander effect.

What is the Bystander Effect?

The bystander effect is a social psychological phenomenon where individuals are less likely to help a victim when other people are present. The presence of others creates a diffusion of responsibility, where each person assumes someone else will intervene. This effect can lead to inaction in critical situations, even when individuals recognise that someone needs help.

The most famous example of the bystander effect is the murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York. On March 13, 1964, Genovese was attacked and killed outside her apartment while reportedly 38 witnesses heard or saw parts of the attack but did not intervene or call the police. This tragic event spurred investigations into police emergency calls and was a big influencer in police emergency numbers in addition to significant research into the bystander effect and leading to greater awareness of the need for intervention.

"The Bystander Effect can manifest in various situations, from emergencies to everyday scenarios, and has significant implications for behaviour in workplaces. Understanding the bystander effect and its underlying mechanisms is crucial for fostering a culture of allyship and proactive support in professional environments".

The Gap Between Intention and Action

Despite widespread recognition of the importance of allyship, there is often a significant gap between people’s intentions and their actions.

Many express a willingness to support others but fail to follow through when the moment arises. For example, a survey by Lean In and McKinsey found that while 77% of men consider themselves allies to women at work, only 45% consistently advocate for gender equality in critical moments . Similarly, a report by Catalyst indicated that 66% of employees see themselves as allies to people of color, but only 19% intervene when witnessing discrimination .This discrepancy can be attributed to several factors:

  1. Fear of Repercussion: Concerns about personal or professional backlash can deter individuals from speaking out.
  2. Lack of Understanding: Insufficient knowledge about the issues facing marginalised groups can result in hesitation.
  3. Bystander Effect: The presence of others can lead individuals to assume someone else will take action.
  4. Complacency and Inaction: Comfort in one’s own position can lead to a lack of motivation to challenge the status quo.

The Bystander Effect

The bystander effect often  observed in workplace settings. Instances of harassment, discrimination, and unethical behaviour often go unchallenged because employees assume someone else will address the issue. This inaction can perpetuate toxic environments and hinder the development of inclusive and supportive workplaces. Several factors contribute to the bystander effect.

  1. Diffusion of Responsibility: When more people are present, the sense of individual responsibility decreases.
  2. Social Influence: People often look to others for cues on how to behave. If no one else is acting, individuals may interpret the situation as non-urgent.
  3. Fear of Judgment: Concern about how others will perceive their actions can prevent individuals from intervening.
  4. Pluralistic Ignorance: When individuals mistakenly believe their thoughts and feelings are different from others, they may not act because they think their concern is unfounded.
  5. Fear of Repercussion: Employees may fear negative consequences, such as retaliation or damage to their professional reputation, if they intervene.
  6. Lack of Awareness: Employees may not recognise certain behaviors as problematic or may be unsure of how to intervene effectively.
  7. Fear of making a mistake – the most common that we hear in the workplace is “fear” that what they might do is wrong. That by speaking up on behalf of someone might insult them further, bring undue attention to the person being harmed. 
  8. Situational – we often say that time is a common enemy and in this case it is a common sited enemy of demonstrating compassion.

Situational: The Princeton Seminary Study

A seminal study by John Darley and Daniel Batson at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1973 provided profound insights into the bystander effect. In this experiment, seminary students (studying to be priests) were asked to prepare a talk on the Good Samaritan parable and then travel to a different location to deliver it. Along the way, they encountered a person slumped in an alley, appearing to need help. The researchers varied the urgency of the students’ assignment by telling them they were either running late or had extra time. The results were striking: those in a hurry were significantly less likely to stop and help, despite the subject of their talk being about helping others. This study highlighted how situational factors, rather than personality traits or moral values, heavily influence whether individuals intervene in emergencies.

Stats to get your head around

  1. Gender Allyship: A study by BCG found that only 27% of men frequently mentor or sponsor women in their organizations, despite 86% of men recognising the importance of such actions for gender equality .

  2. Racial Allyship: According to a PwC report, 60% of employees of color believe that allyship programs are effective in improving racial equality at work, yet only 34% of companies have formal allyship programs in place .

  3. LGBTQ+ Allyship: The Human Rights Campaign’s 2020 Corporate Equality Index reported that 91% of Fortune 500 companies include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies, but only 57% include gender identity, highlighting a gap in comprehensive LGBTQ+ allyship .

  4. Disability Allyship: A report by Accenture found that companies that champion disability inclusion have 28% higher revenue and 30% higher profit margins. Despite this, only 29% of employees say their companies are committed to disability allyship .

  5. General Allyship Behaviour: Catalyst’s research indicates that 45% of employees believe that their organization’s leadership supports inclusion, but only 29% feel that their peers are active allies, showing a discrepancy between leadership intentions and peer actions .

These statistics underscore the varying degrees of allyship across different dimensions and the gap between recognition and action.

Reducing the Bystander Effect in Workplaces

To counteract the bystander effect and promote allyship in the workplace, organisations can implement several strategies:

  1. Educate and Train:
    • Conduct regular training sessions on recognizing and addressing harassment, discrimination, and unethical behavior.
    • Include bystander intervention training to empower employees with the skills and confidence to act.
  2. Encourage a Culture of Accountability:
    • Foster an environment where employees feel responsible for one another’s well-being.
    • Implement clear policies and procedures for reporting and addressing issues.
  3. Lead by Example:
    • Leaders should model proactive behavior by intervening in inappropriate situations and supporting those who do the same.
    • Share stories of positive interventions and celebrate employees who exemplify allyship.
  4. Provide Clear Reporting Mechanisms:
    • Ensure that there are accessible and confidential ways for employees to report concerns without fear of retaliation.
    • Regularly communicate these mechanisms to all staff.
  5. Support and Protect Whistleblowers:
    • Create a safe environment for whistleblowers by protecting their identity and providing support.
    • Establish a zero-tolerance policy for retaliation against those who report misconduct.
  6. Regularly Assess Workplace Culture:
    • Conduct surveys and focus groups to understand the prevalence of the bystander effect and areas needing improvement.
    • Use the feedback to implement targeted interventions and track progress over times
  7. Encourage curiosity and sharing
    • Encourage people to share their stories and experiences so people are looking through another lens.
    • Create an environment for curiosity and questioning about how and when “bystander” intervention strategies should be used.
  8. Ensure psychologically safe environments
    • Create an environment free of judgement.
    • Establish ground rules
    • Ensure respect at all times
    • Understand humility and curiosity.

“The best way to be an ally is to listen more, talk less, and show up when it counts.” – Brittany Packnett

 “Allyship is not an identity—it is a lifelong commitment to action and accountability.” – Anonymous

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” – Martin Luther King Jr.


Key Takeaways:

  • The bystander effect is a powerful social phenomenon that can lead to inaction in critical situations, both in everyday life and in professional settings.

  • Understanding its mechanisms, as illustrated by the Corporate World, the Princeton Seminary study, the Kitty Genovese case and even a “Seinfeld” episode, provides valuable insights into human behavior.

  • By addressing the bystander effect through education, creating a culture of accountability, and supporting proactive interventions, organisations can foster environments where allyship thrives and all employees feel supported and valued.

  •  Workplaces can move beyond apathy and towards a more inclusive, ethical, and collaborative future.

“Neuroscience is the foundation for the approach we bring to every engagement, and it provides a means for consistently making informed decisions that accelerate organisational performance and well-being”.  Carolyn Grant

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