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The Bystander Effect: If Not You, Who?

Here we are – Part 3 of my 3-part series on the Bystander Effect. I hope you have enjoyed and learned from Parts 1 and 2. Before I discuss what actions we can take as bystanders, let’s recap …

In Part 1, we learned the origin of the Bystander Effect, what it is, and why some people act, and others don’t. The Bystander Effect originated from the accounts of witnesses not intervening during the murder of Kitty Genovese. After many studies, researchers found that the more people there are, the less likely we are to act or intervene to help someone in need. Factors such as fear, ambiguity, affinity, and diffusion of responsibility play a role in whether a bystander acts.

In Part 2, we learned about the 5-step cognitive process bystanders engage in when deciding whether to intervene in a situation. Those steps are notice, interpret, decide, choose and implement.

Now let’s discuss what you can do once you have noticed the situation, interpreted it as something that needs your intervention and you have decided to intervene. This is your moment: the power to choose. The power to choose what action you will take.

We want to help people but sometimes we don’t know what to do or how to do it. Because of that uncertainty we often do nothing. However, no matter the situation, we can all do something. The opposite of action is not inaction, it’s indifference. There’s a spectrum from “doing nothing” to “doing something.” This applies to the streets, workplace, schools, and the world wide web – the internet.

Often, we don’t physically intervene because of the potential risks involved. While physical intervention is one option, there are so many other things we can do to help that involve little or no risk: (1) ask someone to get help, (2) report the incident, (3) call for help, or (4) create a distraction. Emergent situations may require you to act in the moment. However, there are other situations where you can do something after the fact, e.g., witnessing harassment or discrimination at work. These delayed actions are just as powerful.

You may also be wondering about recording the incident. In this age of technology recording situations is a very common occurrence. Recording an incident can also be a form of intervention. However, just recording it is not enough. The recording needs to be provided to someone who can use it to solve a crime or identify a victim or perpetrator or uncover details of an incident. Unfortunately, too often these recordings end up on social media as a source of entertainment rather than a vehicle to get help. If you simply record but stay silent, you are still a bystander.

This doesn’t just sound good in principle, it really works. You may have heard the saying, “it’s the little things.” In bystander intervention, it often is the little things that make a huge difference. So, am I saying If you just call for help, ask someone to get help, report it, or create a distraction instead of physically intervening, I’m making a difference? Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying. But don’t just take it from me. Here’s proof.

On Saturday evening I was having dinner with my husband when I received the following Facebook message from a friend:

Someone had their life extended a little longer because your words were playing in my head today. I saw someone ODing and someone else trying to keep him conscious. In the past, I might have let the friend handle things. This time, I asked the friend if he needed me to call 911. He did. I did. And I stayed on the phone until the medics arrived. I haven’t even heard your full talk, but I heard enough to motivate me to do something. Keep speaking. Your words are going to save lives. (emphasis added)

My friend did three simple things: (1) he didn’t ignore the situation; (2) he asked if the person needed help and (3) he called for help. He did not have to physically intervene. He didn’t have to put his own life in danger. However, those small gestures allowed the first bystander to continue trying to keep the person conscious and not worry about having to call for help.

We have the power to choose how we will act and to what extent we are capable of doing so. We cannot all be heroes that swoop in to save the day. But we also all cannot be bystanders who stand by and do nothing. We all have limits that control what we will and will not do. My limits are doing nothing on one end of the spectrum and death on the other. However, there is so much room for action between nothing and death.

The next time you witness a situation where someone needs help, don’t just ignore it or walk by. Be like my friend – ask how you can help or help.

Do something.

Create a “Bystander Free Zone.” I am. More information coming soon. Also, please look out for my TEDx Talk and share with everyone you know.

It takes just one person to act.

Will you be that one?

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About the author:

Kelly Charles-Collins is a TEDx Speaker, Author, HR Expert and Attorney. From her own personal experiences to her over 20 years as an employment attorney helping organizations uncover hidden truths in their workplaces, Kelly is the Bystander Expert. Kelly shares her expertise in her highly anticipated TEDx talk. Kelly is available for keynotes, training, consulting, and interviews on the Bystander Effect, Unconscious Bias, Diversity & Inclusion, Corporate Culture, and Workplace Investigations. Kelly’s book ACE Your Workplace Investigations: A Step-by-Step Guide for Avoiding Friction, Covering Your Assets, and Earning Employee Trust is available on Amazon. Kelly can be contacted at (770) 476-9865. Please also visit her website at www.kellycharlescollins.comand follow her on social media: LinkedIn: Kelly Charles-Collins, Facebook: KellyCharlesCollins22, Twitter: @HRlawattoney.