Workplace Harassment and The Bystander Effect

59 years ago, in the very early hours of the morning on March 13th, Catherine Susan “Kitty” Genovese was walking down the solitary streets of Queen’s, New York, eager to get back to her apartment in Kew Gardens after a long day as a bar manager. She was 28 years old, and she had been saving up to establish an Italian restaurant of her own, likely with the recipes passed down to her from the Italian side of her family. She was young, with big dreams, and her whole life ahead of her. She was driven and enthusiastic, passionate about life and its prospects.

As Kitty Genovese walked down the relatively deserted street at 3 am that morning, she was killed by a man called Winston Moseley, who –it was later reported by the New York Times– stabbed her in the presence of 38 witnesses.

It would later come to light that the number of witnesses was greatly overstated, but the brutal murder of Kitty Genovese in the presence of 38 people who allegedly looked the other way as she screamed for help, became the foundation for studies into what was coined “the bystander effect”.

Kitty Genovese’s story was told and is retold still to remind people of their responsibility to be more than just a bystander, of the consequences of turning a blind eye to blatant wrongdoing, of what is at stake when one doesn’t intervene because  “It’s none of my business,” and of how passivity is sometimes complicity.

You’re probably thinking, “I’d have called the police, I’d have done something because I would definitely not have stood by and let a murder happen.”

Maybe that’s true for murder, but what about other, subtler things that happen in your presence? How many times have you watched as a co-worker sat uncomfortably through another co-worker’s “jokes”? Have you ever just stood by as a superior at your workplace and passed snide comments at the newly appointed secretary?

And if you’ve ever been the co-worker at whom those snide comments or misogynistic “jokes” were directed, don’t you think it might have made a world of difference if somebody else had stood up for you, rather than stood by and watched?

And that, folks, is the ‘bystander effect’ in action, and it is one of the reasons toxic workplaces with a culture of harassment continue to endure.

What is Workplace Harassment?

Workplace harassment can be broadly defined as any unwanted behaviour that humiliates, offends, or intimidates a person and targets them in the workplace.

Unfortunately, this is a widespread epidemic in Australia, with one in three workers reporting that they have experienced sexual harassment at work in the last five years alone, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission.

However, it has to be noted that workplace harassment isn’t confined to just sexual harassment; it can take on many forms including physical, verbal, sexual, or emotional harassment.

In order to change workplace culture, and create an environment where everyone is comfortable and free to do their best work and be their best selves, in order to ensure that workplace harassment cannot endure– it is necessary that we are first able to recognise it, in all its forms and in all its seriousness.

Types of Workplace Harassment and How to Recognise Them

Verbal harassment at the workplace normally employs tactics from thinly-veiled slights against somebody —based on their gender, race, ethnicity, or religious preference—, to outright slurs, name-calling, and unwanted jokes. It includes cursing, yelling, or making inappropriate remarks.

Psychological harassment on the other hand is often much more subtle but no less manipulative. It can take on forms like gaslighting, or exclusionary tactics, ultimately making the victim feel inferior, depleted, worn down, and broken.

Digital Harassment can include incidents of cyberbullying where the perpetrator makes false allegations online or creates entire web pages to mock or belittle the victim.

Physical harassment can range from shoving or blocking to outright assault and damage to personal property. It doesn’t necessarily have to result in bruised jaws or black eyes—it can even include simple unwanted gestures or things that may be later downplayed as jokes such as tripping a co-worker.

Sexual harassment is a serious offense, and may not even be immediately recognisable. It can range from innocuous sexual gestures to sharing pornographic content or even asking for sexual favours in exchange for a promotion or job security.

Workplace harassment, in all its forms, is punishable by the law.

Workplace Harassment Through the Lens of the Law

Harassment is similar to bullying in that it involves intentionally hurting another person through offensive, insulting, or cruel behaviours to the extent that the target has greater difficulty in performing their duties. However, while it is true that there is considerable overlap between bullying and harassment in work settings – they are both about abusing and establishing power and control–, the two aren’t the same thing, and neither are the laws that relate to them.

While bullying is largely a breach of health and safety regulations, harassment falls squarely under the banner of workplace discrimination. This means that a single incident of workplace harassment can constitute a breach of anti-discrimination laws, which can, in turn, entail legal action against employers and perpetrators.

How to deal with workplace harassment?

If you, or anyone you know, are having to undergo harassment at your workplace, it is important not to put off asking for help.

One of the primary motives of the perpetrator is to isolate their victim, to make them feel like there’s nowhere they can go for help or no one who will believe them and take their side.

If you’re someone who’s been a bystander to workplace harassment or if you’ve watched your co-worker being forced to grit their teeth and smile in the face of a supervisor who makes demeaning jokes about them, it is time you simply refuse to be complicit in that crime anymore.

Initially, you should contact your immediate supervisor or the HR department at work to report or discuss bullying incidents. If that’s not an option, contact someone higher up in the organisation that you can trust.

If you feel you’re in personal danger, or if you believe the bully has broken anti-discrimination, sexual harassment, or any other laws, call the police.

If you’re feeling emotionally overwhelmed by a workplace bullying situation, contact organisations in your vicinity that provide support for anxiety, depression, and suicide prevention.

If you need help dealing with workplace harassment, you can visit this website which will help you gain a better understanding of laws pertaining to sexual harassment, as well as what measures to take if you are a victim.

You can also  read this article or this for further information and support. There are always people who will listen and people who will be willing to be there for you, so make sure you don’t put off asking for help. 

Make sure to record the harassment, and keep track of every incident—be proactive, rather than reactive.

Be an upstander; stand up for your colleagues, and your co-workers, even in the face of supervisors and superiors who abuse their positions of power to belittle their employees. Do not be a bystander. As a manager or a responsible employee, it is your duty to make workplace harassment unacceptable and set the bar for zero tolerance.

If a co-worker is undergoing harassment at your workplace and you feel tempted to continue on with your work, to be a bystander because “It’s none of my business”– remember a girl from 59 years ago, who was stabbed on the streets of Queens, New York City, in the early hours of March 13th because 38 people heard her screams and thought to themselves that it was not their place to intervene.

Please check out my most recent book ‘The Upstander Leader’ 

You will also love ‘The Upstand Academy”