The bystander effect

Here we look at the bystander effect and explore its ethical, operational and legal implications.

The bystander effect can have negative effects on an organisation’s profits and legal position. As both an in-house lawyer and a people manager, you may have to tackle this psychological phenomenon.

What is the bystander effect?

On 13 March 1964, a woman called Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death outside the New York apartment block she lived in. A fortnight later, a follow-up article in the New York Times claimed there were 38 witnesses to the murder, none of whom made any effort to help Genovese or call the emergency services.

Several years later, the accuracy of the New York Times article was shown to be flawed, but the case caught the imagination of two social psychologists, Bibb Latané and John Darley.

Through a series of experiments, Latané and Darley demonstrated that in a human emergency, act of wrongdoing or dangerous environment, people are less likely to step in and help if other people are present. This is known as ‘diffusion of responsibility.’ Latané and Darley also discovered a direct correlation between the number of people present and the likelihood of an intervention: the more people there are in attendance, the less likely an individual is to take the initiative.

Similarly, the more people present, the longer it takes for an individual to take action.

Latané and Darley defined what we refer to today as the bystander effect, or bystander apathy.

Often, witnesses to a situation will tell themselves that the victim ‘will be OK’ or that ‘someone else is probably helping.’ Equally likely is that a natural reluctance to go out on a limb is at play, driven in part by social proofing, in which people assume that others understand a situation better than they do. In this case, they emulate the other people’s behaviours. In large groups where quick thinking is required, it’s not unusual for people to feel underqualified to help. Information overload takes hold, paralysis and indecision set in.

In organisations, the bystander effect can have implications for:

  • Project management. Project teams and groups such as steering committees, where hierarchies are not always clearly defined, are fertile grounds for the bystander effect. Everyone can see what needs to be done, but can easily assume that someone else is doing it. In this scenario, diffusion of responsibility allows people to believe that their obligations are shared equally among the group, so their duty to act as individuals is diminished.

Counter the bystander effect in project management and departmental processes by always assigning tasks to a named person and setting a deadline.

Ongoing process improvement

Organisations rely heavily on the continual improvement of their processes and the feedback of the people who implement them. It’s common for people to complain about a particular internal process, yet not so common for them to approach management with a cogent alternative. Why? Because the assumption that someone else is ‘on it’ too often prevails. And, of course, the more people the organisation employs, the more acutely the bystander effect will be felt.

  • If change management is a part of your role as a senior in-house lawyer, let it be known to all your colleagues that you and the wider management team are open to new ideas, regardless of who they come from. Smash the myth that others are thinking what they’re thinking and urge people to come forward and share their ideas.
  • Whistle-blowing. In business and public affairs, the bystander effect is at its most harmful when it comes to wrongdoing in the workplace. Addressing this very subject in an interview, Philippa Foster Back OBE, Director of the Institute of Business Ethics, said:

“A survey from the Institute of Business Ethics that has [also] shown 20% of the British working public have seen wrongdoing at work, but only half of those have done anything about it. Most cite it is none of their business, a concern that nothing will be done about rectifying the misbehaviour or that they personally will suffer for raising the matter. This level of persistent bystander effect is worrying.”

Another concern for the would-be whistle-blower is that they may be accused of reward hunting. Under the Dodd-Frank Act [link SOX long?], a person providing 'original information' leading to enforcement action with penalties of $1m or more can receive between 10% and 30% of the total penalties an organisation incurs for wrongdoing.

Research and anecdotal evidence suggests that internal whistle-blowing is far more commonplace than the reporting of malpractice to an external regulator or authority.

While concerns of retaliation are obvious and understandable reasons for this, the bystander effect is probably also a factor. If one person has noticed the wrongdoing, for example, it’s natural for them to assume that others have, too. In which case, why should they be the one to come forward?

Minimising the bystander effect

As well as corporate wrongdoing, the bystander effect can be present in incidences of bullying (including cyber-bullying) discrimination, intolerance and even physical abuse in the workplace.

The ethical and legal consequences of the bystander effect can be crippling for organisations. Treat it as an action rather than an omission and minimise its potential with:

  • Diverse and open leadership. Diversity at the top of an organisation [link: Inclusive leadership?] prevents the normalisation of processes and behaviours that may make some people feel uncomfortable. If people feel they’re in a minority group or have the minority opinion, they’re far less likely to call out wrongdoing. Leaders should also encourage everyone to come forward and discuss issues at any time;
  • Anonymity. Make it possible, perhaps through an app or an external organisation, for people to report wrongdoing without fear of reproach or a career-restricting note on their employee file. Challenge the perception that HR and legal are there to protect the organisation first and the employee second; and
  • A strong HR department. If the HR department is too narrowly focused on the day-to-day management of personnel administration, it won’t have the time or the skills to deal with people’s concerns around whistleblowing. Ensure all colleagues in the organisation can talk openly and say how they feel about consciously confronting the bystander effect.


The bystander effect is a psychological phenomenon in which the more people witness an act of wrongdoing; the less likely any one of them is to do anything about it. It has implications for organisations in the context of project management, process improvement and, perhaps most crucially, whistleblowing. Take steps to minimise the potential impact of the bystander effect in your organisation through diverse leadership, opportunities for people to report things anonymously and a strong, understanding HR department.