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Dear Anna,

Why is it so easy to call people out on small things – like where to save a document – and not be prepared to call out the big things like harassment and bullying? 

Each group has their ways of doing things. The more the behaviour you would like to change is part of the way the group does things, the more difficult it will be to say something while you are in the group. Take sexual harassment. It’s something everyone agrees should not happen – and yet it persists. Why can a colleague call out a behaviour related to being late for a meeting and not say something to the person displaying inappropriate art, telling inappropriate jokes or touching inappropriate body parts. 

Bystanders are those people who see things happening and are faced with a choice. Say something or walk on by. The more you feel a need to be part of the group, be accepted and not challenge the status quo, the more you will find it difficult to say something. The raw ingredients of a bystander who is prepared to say something were identified as far back as 1970 by Latane and Darley in their five-step bystander intervention model. In a nutshell, it’s (1) notice, (2) interpret, (3) take responsibility, (4) decide the action, and (5) take the action. I can’t help but wonder if all the hours and dollars spent on diversity and inclusion initiatives that have no reliable evidence base could have been better spent on measuring who is most likely to follow these five steps and developing those that aren’t. 

Frustrations aside at the efforts that are more window dressing than window cleaning, there are real risks to bystanders – especially if they say something and nothing is done. Calling out powerful people is not for the faint-hearted. They take the risk of being shunned, excluded or victimised. What is certain is that if initial efforts to say or do something are met with resistance, they quickly learn it’s not worth the risk and the behaviour will go unchecked. There’s not much risk in calling out the person who doesn’t push their chair in after a meeting, but there are huge risks to calling out the same person who placed their hand on the lower back of a colleague as they squeeze past them as people leave a meeting room. Such a small example of  a much larger problem. 

Who is most likely to feel comfortable saying something? The best bystanders turn out to be those who are on the edge of the group. The occasional visitor to the meeting who knows the group well enough to be sure of what they saw and to have distance from the risks. The person who has a clear picture in their own mind of what is appropriate and what is not, feels a personal responsibility to ensure the behaviour doesn’t happen again, knows the action to take, and takes it.   

When you find yourself observing something as a bystander, make sure you say something. If everyone does when they are on the edge of a group, the behavior won’t be tolerated in any group.