Empower employees to end unethical behavior

Workplace bystander intervention can be a powerful tool against misbehavior

“If you see it, say it” is a common phrase in the ethics & compliance world.  If an employee sees unethical action in the workplace—be it corruption, harassment, conflicts, unauthorized information sharing, or the likes—they should report it to their manager, HR, Ethics & Compliance or the Helpline.

While this message is important, it doesn’t always resonate. Many employees don’t want to be seen as a “snitch,” or they have real fear of retaliation.  So even if they see unethical action, they don’t blow the whistle (the subject of whistleblowing is a big one—I’ll save it for another post!). That’s why many compliance scandals and headlines, once uncovered, reveal how many people knew about the unethical actions but didn’t feel empowered to report them.

So what more can we do to empower employees and make them active participants in ending unethical behavior in the workplace? Recently, our community has been drawn to the role of bystanders—people that witness unethical behavior—and the potential for bystander intervention as a way to address unethical conduct and preventing it from becoming a slippery slope. The concept of bystander intervention originated in the post-secondary education world to address concerns of sexual violence.

Workplace bystander intervention

The concept is this (put simply): If we empower bystanders to appropriately deescalate unethical situations or say something to the person committing the unethical action at the time the action is occurring, less unethical action will occur. It could deter unethical action if perpetrators had more fear that people who saw them acting unethically would challenge them, right then and there. The difference being the intervention is real-time and directly addressed to the person committing the unethical action.

Interestingly, in these COVID-19 times, we may learn even more about bystander intervention than we realize. What should we do if we see people not abiding by social distancing rules or not wearing a mask? Should we say anything at all? How do we call out unethical action without being confrontational?

The answer is: practice.

In the workplace, this is the role of ethics and compliance teams. We must train employees to intervene in a way that’s sensible, practical, and non-confrontational. And guess what: that means allowing our workforce to practice and equipping them with techniques for how to properly and effectively intervene and deescalate.

After all, we all play a role in protecting each other.

Encourage a speak-up culture

Creating a speak-up culture is essential to the health of your company. Check out the guide we created in collaboration with OCEG to see how the right tools can help you build the foundation to encourage speaking up.

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