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The Bystander Effect and How to Overcome It

Racist comments or actions made in public can be even more hurtful and embarrassing to the victim than in private, yet public displays of racism often go unacknowledged due to the bystander effect. The bystander effect—the concept that individuals are less likely to intervene when witnessing injustice as a group—is often subconscious, but expecting others to step in instead of taking action further spreads inequity in the workplace by allowing injustice to continue. Let’s take a look at some steps to overcome the bystander effect and speak out against workplace racism.

Try not to worry about the consequences. One of the largest reasons that many people don’t speak up is that they’re afraid of the repercussions, especially if it’s to someone in a higher-level position. However, keep in mind that most states have laws in place to protect you from retaliation for calling out discrimination, and many companies have implemented similar policies.

Talk to HR. Discussing what you saw to the human resources department of your company is an easy way to avoid the bystander effect. Even if you aren’t responding right away, you are making sure the act is documented so proper disciplinary measures can be taken by your employer.

Consider the consequences of not speaking up. If everyone is thinking someone else will say something, then nothing will be remedied. Without you calling out the injustice, it can continue and even worsen.

Take advantage of our natural desire to help. When we see someone upset, we naturally want to help that person feel better. Although the bystander effect may fog our decision-making, we still have the calling to help one another. By showing bravery in taking action, others will find the courage to join you, strengthening your fight against workplace injustice.

The bystander effect is difficult to overcome, especially when fear of retaliation takes hold. Remember, there are laws and policies in place to protect you and your intervention is essential in stopping the harmful behavior from continuing in the future. Defeating the bystander effect can be challenging, but it is a necessary step in fighting for workplace diversity, inclusion, and equity for all.

Karine Bah Tahé, Blue Level Founder and CEO


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