What to Do when You Are a Workplace Bystander

December is a great time to ponder how you might become a stronger voice for a better society and healthier workplace.

For example, at work, how can you be an “upstander,” i.e., an individual who acts when they see wrong. Upstanders take action when their inner canary alerts them that a decency line has been crossed.

What might it take for you to be an upstander, rather than simply a passive bystander?

First, try doing something right then and there, on the spot, and not wait until later. If you are silent as things unfold, you are unwittingly endorsing the behaviour. Even worse, the person on the receiving end will perceive the incivility as supported by the community of those around who are mum. MRI research results show that the brain of a person experiencing something like this will register it as if it were actual physical pain.

Like most people in the workplace, you may freeze when you find yourself in the bystander position observScreen Shot 2018-12-13 at 6.30.47 AMing disrespectful behaviour. You may have a fear of conflict or a discomfort with the power dynamics. Or maybe you feel apprehensive about getting entangled in something messy that could turn even messier. You might feel like a deer caught in the headlights. Later on, in the car or the shower, and sometimes days or even months later, you might replay the scene in your mind as you engage in the futile game of should’ve-could’ve.

But here’s some good news: being an upstander does not require heroic deeds or standing on a soap box, preaching away. It can be as simple as using humour to stop things in their tracks. (Ever tried a purposefully conspicuous fake cough? Those can go a surprisingly long way…)

If you find yourself unable to do or say anything, at the very minimum you can still be a force for the good by changing the topic or diverting attention.

So what can you actually say that will convert you from passive bystander to upstander? Consider these thought starters:

  • “I’m uncomfortable with that.”
  • “The fact that we’re all stressed right now doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be nice to one another.”
  • “Actually, I disagree with what you just said/did.”
  • “This isn’t right. Let’s not go there!”
  • “Hey, let’s remember that we’re supposed to be an inclusive workplace.”
  • “We shouldn’t be saying these kinds of things. Let’s cut it out.”
  • “Saying/doing that can get you into all kinds of trouble. Let’s move on.”
  • “There’s nothing funny about that joke. Let’s stick with clean stuff.”
  • “That’s not right.”
  • “That’s inappropriate.”

As much as possible, send a clear “stop” message. As you do so, do your best to maintain everyone’s dignity, avoiding inadvertently insulting any of those involved.

Here’s to a wonderful, sweet, and impactful New Year to you and yours. A year of doing better on all fronts. Happy everything, and see you in 2019!

PS a technical glitch prevented any of you from receiving the previous blog post I wrote after a long hiatus. Click here to access it.

This entry was posted in Blog, Harassment, Leadership, Respectful Workplace, Workplace Incivility. Bookmark the permalink.


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