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Part 3: The motivations and actions of bystanders: theoretical perspectives on bystander intervention

Encourage. Support. Act!

Bystander Approaches to Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Part 3: The motivations
and actions of bystanders: theoretical perspectives on bystander

Models which account for the circumstances under which different bystander
responses occur have been evolving since the 1970s, especially in the fields of
criminology and social psychology. The notion of bystanders originated with the
study of an event in New York where a young woman, Kitty Genovese, was raped and
stabbed to death over a period of half an hour. During the attack, 38 witnesses
watched from their windows or heard her screaming but were unwilling or unable
to effectively intervene. The term bystander apathy was subsequently used to
describe the behaviour of people in emergencies who are aware of a violent
assault or an injustice but do not attempt any effective
intervention.[150] The clearest
finding of bystander research in emergency situations is that the motives and
actions of bystanders vary and are influenced by the behaviours of other
bystanders.[151] While studies
revealing the apathy or silence of bystanders in the face of incivility and
violence have dominated empirical work in the area, more recently, this
inevitability has begun to be

Compared to older studies, recent research has revealed more nuanced effects
of group size and group-level relationships on the likelihood of bystander
interventions and in a broader range of situations than emergencies. While very
little work has taken an explicitly applied approach in the context of the
workplace, there have been a few recent developments. For example, a recent
study of workplace bullying suggested that previously silent bystanders begin to
support targets when the latter decide to resign, indicating at least a
potential for bystanders to act as change
agents[153] within their
organisations and a willingness to contribute to a culture which does not
tolerate harassment.

Typologies of bystanders have also been proposed, for example characterising
these individuals as bullies (someone who enjoys the victimisation but does not
want to participate), avoidant (someone who denies the existence of the
problem), victims (someone who is frozen and frightened to deviate from social
norms) or helpful (someone who attempts to defuse the

A recent and promising model which is relevant to bystander issues in the
workplace is based on empirical and theoretical work on employee voice,
procedural justice and social identification. It proposes a process by which a
workplace observer will respond to a perceived justice violation of a
co-worker.[155] The model contains
4 propositions which are summarised as follows:

  1. When an observer is similar to the target of the injustice, they will
    identify with them
  2. When an observer identifies with the target this increases the likelihood
    that an event will be noticed and perceived as an injustice
  3. When an injustice is perceived, the decision of an observer to respond to or
    report the injustice is influenced by the organisational environment
  4. An observer’s decision of whether to use individual strategies or
    collective strategies depends on the perceived benefits and costs of these

These propositions are detailed below and draw further on
theory and empirical research in a number of aligned areas (eg whistle blowing,
organisational ethics, workplace bullying), as well as sexual harassment
research, to highlight how this framework may be useful for developing practical
bystander interventions in workplace sexual harassment and also the inherent
challenges in doing so.

3.1 Cognitive appraisals
by bystanders

The first proposition in the justice violation model suggests that when an
observer is similar to the target of the injustice, they will identify with
them, especially when the benefits of this identification outweigh the costs.
This proposition is based on social identity theory which suggests that
individuals categorise themselves and others, ascribe value to those categories
and, all other factors being equal, identify more strongly with similar
others.[156] However, the social
standing of the characteristic shared by the target and the observer dictates
the extent to which similarity will result in
identification.[157] For example,
in studies of bystander intervention in crisis situations, a victim is more
likely to receive aid if they are perceived to be of high status or in the
‘in-group’.[158] Management studies have also shown that members of high status demographic
groups (eg white men) are more likely to exhibit in-group bias than members of
low-status demographic groups (eg non-white
women).[159] Consistent with this
theoretical perspective, US research examining the effects of race on whether
sexual harassment judgments had indeed occurred, reports that both black and
white observers favour their own race in decisions regarding whether harassment
occurred, with white males exhibiting the most racial

An observer is also more likely to identify with a target of injustice if the
target is in a position to offer something of value to the observer in the
future. The tendency for stronger identification to occur amongst high status
‘in-group’ members and where something of value can be attained, may
be problematic in efforts to engage bystanders. Close identification amongst
high status group members may pose a particular challenge where sexual
harassment is perpetrated by dominant organisational members or where the
targets of sexual harassment are employed in lower level occupational positions
who have less potential to offer future organisational benefits to bystanders.

The second proposition in the justice violation model is that when the
observer identifies with the target this increases the likelihood that an event
will be noticed and perceived as an
injustice.[161] The individual
bystander faces a decision point about whether the target falls within their
‘scope of justice’, which involves both weighing the value of
similarity and the likelihood of benefits for maintaining a connection with the
target, against the potential costs of being associated with a low-status
group.[162] Bystanders also
scrutinise the reactions of other observers (eg anxious or uncomfortable versus
relaxed or nonchalant), to determine the appropriate framing of the
situation.[163] In what has been
described as ‘pluralistic
ignorance’,[164] bystanders
may believe mistakenly that they are in the minority in opposing harassing

However, even when social identification is strong and negative reactions by
other observers are evident, there may still be significant uncertainty about
whether conduct that may constitute sexual harassment is perceived as an
injustice, or is high in ‘moral intensity’ (see O’Leary-Kelly
& Bowes-Sperry 2001for a
review[165]). That is, while some
workplace behaviours such as an act of physical violence, obvious racial slurs
or overt bullying may evoke clear perceptions of injustice (whether or not this
is acted upon), thresholds for what constitutes sexual harassment are often less
clear. However, social identification principles would suggest that bystanders
are motivated to interpret ambiguous social sexual behaviour perpetrated by an
in-group member as something other than sexual harassment, consequently making
them less likely to decide to intervene. This poses a significant challenge to
the design of bystander interventions in a range of organisational contexts.

3.2 Bystander
intervention decisions

Equity or justice theory purports that individuals, when confronted with an
injustice, such as where the norms of reciprocity have been violated, are
motivated to behave in ways which restore
equity.[166] However, this process
is far from straightforward. The third proposition in the justice violation
model suggests that when an injustice is perceived, the decision of an observer
to express voice (such as reporting the injustice) through organisational
channels is influenced by the extent to which the organisation is open to voice
and will take the observer’s views into account and do something about it.
This is related to a person’s expectations about psychological safety and
the way they weigh up the potential benefits of changing the target’s (and
by implication their own) work environment, versus being seen as a troublemaker
or feeling as though the attempts at change have been
futile.[167] This weighing up of
likely consequences by bystanders is also reflected in the basic premises of the
arousal: cost-reward model[168] which proposes that another person’s distress causes physiological arousal
in an observer which, in turn, initiates the process of deciding whether to
help. This decision involves weighing up the perceived costs of helping versus
not helping.

A salient issue in terms of bystander decisions to assist targets in
workplace sexual harassment is the nature of preventative and remedial
organisational systems, that is, the extent to which the organisational
environment supports advocacy for targets and the way the organisation responds
once a complaint is made. Without a credible voice system in place, employees
may resort to counterproductive behaviours and responses to the observed
injustice, such as reduced commitment and productivity, fewer citizenship
behaviours, absenteeism and
sabotage.[169] Importantly, these
same psychological and behavioural responses are directly reflected in the
literature attesting to the many costs to organisations of sexual
harassment.[170] Thus, justice
theories may help explain the more intangible ramifications of sexual harassment
and why it is so corrosive, not only for individual targets but for all
employees in the broader work environment.

There are indications that masculine norms and identities may also play a
part in the likelihood of bystander intervention. In-depth studies of how the
desire to appear masculine influenced men’s anticipated responses in
descriptions of rape scenarios suggested that male bystanders may decide against
protecting women, especially if exclusively in the presence of other men, for
fear of being seen as weak, gay and/or unmasculine by their male
peers.[171] The extent to which
this is a problem for encouraging bystander interventions in sexual harassment
is unknown, but it would seem to be a potentially relevant issue given that most
sexual harassment involves a male harasser and a female target. Notions of
masculine norms may be especially relevant in very male-dominated work settings
where sexual harassment has been found to be so

Another promising model which offers a typology of potential bystander
interventions considers two levels of involvement: the degree to which
bystanders immerse themselves in the sexual harassment situation (low, high) and
the level of intervention immediacy, which is whether the intervention occurs as
the sexual harassment event unfolds (high), or later
(low).[173] This amounts to four
categories of intervention behaviours:

  1. Low immediacy-low involvement, such as when an observer privately advises
    the target to avoid the harasser or when they advise the target to report the
    incident but do not get personally involved;
  2. High immediacy-low involvement, such as when an observer redirects the
    harasser from the event as it unfolds or interrupts the incident;
  3. Low immediacy-high involvement, such as when the observer supports the
    target when she or he reports the sexual harassment after the event or confronts
    the harasser after the incident; and
  4. High immediacy-high involvement, such as when a bystander instructs the
    harasser to cease the conduct during the event or publicly encourages the target
    to report the conduct.

Evidence from the relatively limited work
available which addresses individual-level responses to sexual harassment
suggests that the kinds of high-level involvement reflected in this model (both
high and low immediacy) are relatively
infrequent.[174] Many of the
supportive actions which were offered by the majority of witnesses in the
Commission’s prevalence
survey[175] were consistent with
the low immediacy-low involvement category of response. However, responses which
would be consistent with low-immediacy-high-involvement behaviours were also
reported, albeit less frequently, such as making a formal complaint and
confronting the harasser. The reluctance of bystanders to respond at a high
level of involvement to sexual harassment at work is understandable because
these responses tend to be more confrontational and therefore risky in terms of
potential reprisals. As outlined earlier, perceptions of risk are heightened for
individuals who are employed in organisations which lack a credible voice system
or where the perpetrator is in a powerful position and part of the dominant

This distinction between different levels of bystander involvement –
either to take public action ‘on the social stage of the
organisation’[176] or,
simply to be ready to privately support the target emotionally or
cognitively[177] – is likely
to be important in designing bystander interventions which may prevent sexual
harassment. As detailed in Part 2, the level of readiness to be involved is
influenced by complex factors such as the characteristics of the bystander,
their relationship with the target, perceptions of the situation and the conduct
and workplace norms.[178]

Fourth and finally, the justice violation model proposes that the decision
regarding whether to use individual strategies or collective strategies to
respond to or prevent sexual harassment depends on the perceived benefits and
costs of these options.[179] Collective strategies in the broader area of injustice can include high
performance work systems or problem-solving teams. In the context of sexual
harassment however, collective strategies would be more likely to comprise
actions such as issue selling, defined as rallying all members of a group, such
as the strategies outlined in the banking and retail environments and the gem
mine outlined earlier. While not often conceived as a strategy per se,
some research has characterised silence as another collective-level dynamic and
drawn attention to the ‘silence climates’ of some organisations
where employees believe that speaking up is not worth the effort or may come
with personal costs.[180] In
contrast to collective strategies, individual-level strategies may include
upward problem solving and formal reporting.

3.3 Whistle

Issues related to reporting through formal organisational channels have been
addressed in numerous studies addressing sexual harassment but the process of
reporting can also be conceived of through the lens of whistle blowing. Whistle
blowing is a phenomenon defined as when ‘organisational members disclose
illegal, immoral, or illegitimate practices under the control of their
employers, to persons or organisations who may be able to effect

Studies of whistle blowing are rarely aligned with workplace sexual
harassment yet definitions of whistle blowers and bystanders who actively
respond to workplace injustices show significant overlap. For example, in one
study which explicitly linked the reporting of sexual harassment to notions of
whistle blowing, Lee, Gibson Heilmann and Near [182] argued that there is no
inherent difference between the two. However, they included in their study both
targets and bystanders who reported workplace sexual harassment in their
definition of whistle blowers, whereas the focus here is on non-targets.

Research addressing whistle blowing may provide useful insights for
discussions of bystander interventions, especially around the challenges in
encouraging blowing the whistle on wrongdoing and recommendations for overcoming
these challenges. A particular advantage of this area of literature is also that
it frequently addresses real life cases which offer a degree of external
validity rarely found in many of the experimental vignette studies frequently
employed to examine how bystanders perceive sexual harassment.

Whistle blowing can be viewed from a number of theoretical perspectives. From
a power perspective,

whistle-blowing represents an influence process in which the whistle-blower
attempts to exert power over the organisation or some of its members, in order
to persuade the dominant coalition to terminate the wrongdoing being
committed... [while] the dominant coalition, in response, may accept the power
action and terminate the wrongdoing or evade termination, retaliating against
the whistle-blower in an effort to change the power

However, more closely aligned with frameworks explaining bystander
intervention decisions, whistle blowing can also be viewed through justice
theories and particularly procedural and distributive justice in organisational
models.[184] From the vantage
point of whistleblowers (or bystanders), perceptions of procedural justice
depend on satisfaction with how the organisation dealt with the report or
complaint, such as administering the procedure fairly. In contrast, perceptions
of distributive justice depend on the level of satisfaction with the outcome,
such as terminating the wrongdoing and not retaliating against the

The well-documented reluctance of targets of sexual harassment to report
their experiences internally, as well as theory proposing that bystanders often
carefully consider the risks and potential costs to themselves before
intervening to prevent or respond to sexual harassment, suggests many employees
do not expect just procedures and/or outcomes from the organisation. Supporting
this, a study of military employees who observed wrongdoing but did not report
it (ie did not blow the whistle), claimed that the primary reason for remaining
silent was that they thought nothing could be done to rectify the
situation.[186] Unsurprisingly,
the power of the whistle-blower relative to the wrongdoer matters in that
powerful whistle blowers are more likely to be effective and less likely to
suffer retaliation.[187]

There are a number of significant challenges to encouraging whistle blowing
that have particular relevance to sexual harassment. The first is the risk of
victimisation or retaliation. Consistent with power explanations, retaliation
against whistle blowers is thought to occur because management feel that the
whistle blowing threatens the organisation’s authority structure,
cohesiveness and public image and implies managerial incompetence or
carelessness.[188] The Queensland
Whistle Blower Study, for example, found that 71 percent of whistle blowers
suffered official reprisals and 94 percent were the subject of unofficial

Although all Australian states and the ACT have adopted some form of whistle
blowing or public interest disclosure protection legislation, the legislation
has limited scope[190]. Studies of
whistle blowing further reveal that legal sanctions have been largely
unsuccessful in encouraging whistle blowing whereas legalistic responses by
organisations (such as the development of detailed formal policies that are
consistent with legislation and the implementation of systematic investigations
and procedures) are more
successful.[191] Thus, despite the
existence of laws, employees’ behaviour is influenced to a greater extent
by what they perceive is likely to happen in their organisations than by legal
protections. This line of argument has also been put forward in legal commentary
related to sexual harassment. That is, while legal provisions in the federal Sex
Discrimination Act and state-based anti-discrimination legislation offer a means
of redress for the harms targets of harassment experience, they do not extend to
implementing effective, internal, corporate regulation of sexual

The second significant challenge to encouraging whistle blowing that has
relevance to sexual harassment is that situations involving sexual harassment
frequently involve a low quality of evidence. This is because sexual harassment
frequently occurs away from witnesses (a ‘he said, she said’
scenario) and direct observation of the wrongdoing is relatively rare. Studies
have found quality of evidence to be a significant predictor of whistle blowing
and to be lower in cases of sexual harassment and unlawful discrimination than
in other cases of legal violation such as safety problems, waste and
mismanagement.[193] The Australian
Department of Parliamentary Services
(2005)[194] has outlined the
following methods that are thought to best achieve protection of whistle blowers
and the encouragement of whistle blowing:

  1. Providing immunity from legal action (such as being exempt from
    participating in disciplinary or defamation proceedings);
  2. Making it a criminal offense to take detrimental action against a person who
    has made a protected disclosure; and
  3. Keeping the whistle blower’s identity anonymous.

there is no guarantee of absolute anonymity to whistle blowers and possible
identification will always remain a risk, anonymity is thought to be best
achieved by:

  • Providing disclosure regimes which operate on the basis of anonymously
    provided information;
  • Excluding the identity of the whistle blower as a subject of investigation;
  • Imposing a duty upon the recipient of the disclosed information not to
    reveal the discloser’s

findings evident in the whistle blower literature have important implications
for bystander interventions in workplace sexual harassment. As this paper has
noted, bystanders (in cases of sexual harassment specifically) have rarely been
labelled whistle blowers or their responses linked with the way whistle blowers
report wrongdoing or injustices. This is despite sexual harassment being a clear
example of broader notions of wrongdoing evident in the whistle blower
literature and the focus on organisational processes in both areas.
Notwithstanding this separation of definitions, theory and research, the
similarities raised here point to strong arguments for linking these areas more
closely. Attempts to encourage whistle blowing have received significant
political emphasis and media attention in recent years, laws continue to be
broadened and strengthened and efforts to protect whistle blowers arguably have
had strong public support. Therefore, opportunities to leverage such emphasis
and support in the area of sexual harassment appear promising.

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[188] J Near, M Rehg, J Van
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process?’ (2004) 14(2) Business Ethics Quarterly, pp. 219-242; J
Near, T Morehead Dworkin and M Miceli, ‘Explaining the whistle-blowing
process: suggestions from power theory and justice theory’ (1993) 4(3) Organization Science, pp. 393-411; D Weinstein, Bureaucratic

[189] W De Maria and C Jan,
‘Eating its own: the whistleblower’s organization in vendetta
mode’ (1997) 32(1) Australian Journal of Social Issues, p. 45.

[190] Most state legislation
covers only the public sector and does not apply to the corporate,
unincorporated or charitable sectors with a few exceptions. In South Australia,
whistleblower legislation extends to the private sector. Part 9.4AAA of the
Corporations Act also extends whistleblower protection to officers and employees
of companies and subcontractors throughout Australia (see
[191] J Near, T Morehead Dworkin and M Miceli, ‘Explaining the whistle-blowing
process: suggestions from power theory and justice theory’ (1993) 4(3) Organization Science, pp. 393-411; A Trimmer, ‘Whistleblowing: what
it is and what it might mean for incorporated legal practices’ (2004)
February Law Society Journal, p. 69.

[192] C Parker, ‘Public
rights in private government: corporate compliance with sexual harassment
legislation’ (1999) 5(1) Australian Journal of Human Rights, pp. 159-193.

[193] M Miceli and J Near, Blowing the Whistle: The Organizational and Legal Implications of Companies
and Employees
(1992); J Near, M Rehg, J Van Scotter and M Miceli,
‘Does type of wrongdoing affect the whistle-blowing process?’ (2004)
14(2) Business Ethics Quarterly, pp. 219-242.

[194] Department of
Parliamentary Services, ‘Whistleblowing in Australia – transparency,
accountability... but above all, the truth’ (2004-05). Research note, 14
Februrary, ISSN 1449-8456.

[195] Department of
Parliamentary Services, as above.