The Steubenville Rape Trial and the Modern Workplace – What’s the Link??


The recent outcome in the Steubenville rape trial has garnered significant media attention. The events that took place were horrific and disturbing. Two male students sexually assaulted a female student while others did nothing to intervene; even worse, some captured aspects of the incident through photos and a video.

How can this happen, we ask, with just the right amount of righteous indignation? Who ARE these people who can just stand by and allow this to happen?

In actual fact, as noted in a recent Globe and Mail article written by Erin Anderssen, the notion of bystanders failing to intervene, (“bystander apathy”), is a psychological phenomenon that significantly pre-dates this event:

Bystander apathy is common in the modern workplace. Individuals – directors, managers, front line staff and others – routinely witness workplace misconduct, ethical missteps, financial mismanagement and bullying and harassment by their colleagues/coworkers and do nothing to intervene.

As bystanders, we often do not approach individuals directly or report our concerns to those who are in a position to address the situation. Many of us, myself included, can think back to situations where we did not say or do anything in the face of hurtful gossip, insensitive comments or otherwise – either because we did not know what to do – or because we were concerned about the potential personal or professional repercussions should we intervene.

Some, like the “bystanders” in the Steubenville case, do “more” than “nothing”. They quietly support their colleagues by “joining their camp”. Or they not so quietly gossip about the event, at the workplace or through social media such as Facebook and Twitter. This creates a chilling and disrespectful work environment that continues well past the “incident” by the “perpetrator”.

Bystander apathy is not a “given”. It does not have to happen and it can be remedied – if we choose to do so. As the article points out, “giving bystanders specific, non-threatening strategies for stopping bad behaviour … can help.” … “The key is help bystanders recognize troubling behaviour, and feel confident that others will support them if they stand up and act.”

We need to apply these principles to the modern workplace. Employees at all levels of an organization should be educated about “bystander apathy” – why it exists and what can be done to address it. They should be given practical strategies to employ when they witness potential wrongdoing: examples include direct intervention, “distraction and diffusion”, and “supporting and reporting”.

In addition to providing workplace training, employers should design confidential, whistle-blowing policies to facilitate bystander reporting of potential misconduct. These policies should ensure that bystanders remain anonymous and are not subject to retaliation should they come forward to identify a concern. Once the concern is identified, the employer should conduct an objective investigation into the situation.

Finally, once appropriate training and reporting policies are in place, and employees (including managers) are given clear expectations regarding their behaviour as “bystanders”, they should be held accountable for their actions – and inactions – in allowing workplace misconduct to continue.

We will only build and maintain respectful and ethical workplaces if we investigate and address those who engage in misconduct and those who stand by and allow it to happen.

So, instead of attempting to distance ourselves from “those folks in Steubenville”, let’s recognize that the same kind of “apathy” exists in our workplaces, albeit manifested differently. We can then move from a place of “righteous indignation” to a place of “righting the wrongs” of the silent observers in our own backyards.

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