By Janice Gassam
One of the most challenging aspects of racial equity is the difficulty that many people have with calling out racism when they witness it happening at work, at school and in their communities. Aside from struggles with understanding how best to navigate issues of discrimination and bias, there may be fears of retaliation and negative consequences that can accompany speaking up. Although retaliation is illegal, it happens often and can manifest in the workplace as physical or verbal abuse, demotion, greater scrutiny, and lowered performance ratings. In larger groups, people may be less likely to intervene when they witness bullying, crime or other bad behaviors taking place—a phenomenon called the bystander effect. Attorney, speaker, author and consultant Kelly Charles-Collins transforms bystanders into allies and advocates and provides employee guidance on how to speak up and take action when you witness discrimination, bullying, and harassment. Kelly sat down with Forbes to discuss the bystander effect and how to intervene if you ever witness discrimination taking place at work.
Janice Gassam: How did you get into the work that you are doing currently?
Kelly Charles-Collins: I am a 24-year lawyer. The last 20-plus years of my career have been focused on employment law…representing organizations in matters involving Title VII…anything with discrimination, harassment, retaliation, all of those types of issues. Anything that involves employee/employer relationship issues. As a trial lawyer, I see it at the end…when things have gone bad, but I always have been somebody who likes to train and teach my clients so even though I’ve been a defense attorney, I’ve always been a proactive person…being a trial lawyer takes a lot out of you so [for] the past two years, I decided that I wanted to broaden the base, with regards to my expertise, my knowledge and I know that I could do that through professional teaching and training. Two years ago I started on that journey to figure out how best to communicate the message…at the time #metoo was really a big issue, I could talk about sexual harassment but what I found is that unconscious bias and people being bystanders and ignoring employee complaints, those were really…when I look back in my career as a lawyer, those are the things that are really at the root of a lot of our problems. I wanted to use my voice and my expertise to be able to help organizations and individuals to overcome that.
Gassam: What is the bystander effect and how does it manifest in the workplace?
Charles-Collins: The easiest way to explain the bystander effect is the concept that when there are a group of people that witness an incident, that we as individuals are less likely to respond. So generally we hear the statement ‘there’s power in numbers’ but really what happens is when there are group of people and we witness an incident, say for instance, we see a fight going on…what we’re doing is looking around to see who’s going to get involved…when we’re by ourselves however, we are more likely to intervene. So, the bystander effect is about this group mentality that…allows us to diffuse the responsibility to those around us.
Gassam: Did you see this happening a lot with the employment discrimination cases that you took on?
Charles-Collins: Yes. So, when we get into the workplace, the bystander [effect] is rampant…sometimes we witness things…we know that they’re wrong, we may want to speak up but we either don’t know how or we fear that if we speak up then I’m going to be without a job so we have all these other things that we think about…I’m going to lose my job, I’m going to become the pariah, I’m going to become the person who is targeted next…we do a risk analysis about whether or not it’s even worth intervening. Because we see in these situations, sometimes if you’re the one that complains, then you become the problem…when we do that it creates a culture in the workplace that people are fearful…so nobody speaks and the person that’s engaging in whatever behavior of misconduct, then realizes that they have the power to do what they’re doing because nobody’s going to say anything about it…we see microaggressions, we hear people telling racist jokes…you could be in a meeting and a woman is speaking, and then all of a sudden the males want to speak over here. Even those things, because just allow them to go by the waist side, because we don’t want to be involved—they fester in the workplace and so, what I want to teach about bystander intervention is that we have to sweat the small stuff and we have to intervene in those small places.
Gassam: For those reading this thinking ‘how do I intervene when I witness discrimination and racism taking place?’ What would your response be? What are some strategies for people to intervene in the workplace? What sorts of rights to do employees have as far as retaliation?
Charles-Collins: As far as speaking up in the workplace, one of the things my mom has always taught me is time and place. You have to make sure that it’s the right place to stand up. If you’re in a meeting and someone is speaking over another person, and that someone that’s speaking over another person is a CEO, it might not be the right time…however, what you can do is make eye contact with [the victim]…later you may go and speak to your supervisor or if you have a relationship with the CEO you may go to the CEO and say, ‘hey, I don’t know if you realized you did this but during the meeting when Mary was speaking, every time she spoke you would interrupt her and speak over her. That would be one way to understand time and place…another way is if you see, for example…a supervisor is harassing one of the employees, and you see that and you don’t want to say ‘stop harassing them,’ you can just say ‘supervisor A: I have a question over here, can you come help me?’ The thing about bystander intervention and what I want people to understand is, your job is not to be the hero. You don’t have to swoop in and save the whole thing…de-escalating or disrupting the whole situation. You want to take the person who is being attacked or victimized in some way, you want to try to remove them out of that situation…in the workplace what is going to happen to you is the fear of being retaliated against. The onus is on the organization to ensure that people are not retaliated against. That’s going to come from the top down…I always tell people silence is not an option. We can always do something…because we stay silent, the people who are heard, are the people who are disrupting whatever the environment is. Their power lies in our silence. We have to, as a collective body, take back that power and say no…that’s how we end up in lawsuits. Employees are either in an environment where they’ve complained and nothing has been done, or they’ve complained and then they get retaliated against. So, the next person that they call is a lawyer. The next person that they call is the EEOC…[organizations] don’t understand why they are in a lawsuit…if you ignore them or if you [don’t] properly handle their complaint, they are going to go to someone who can help that. And that is going to cost you money…employees can stand up by connecting with each other, by creating distractions, by calling for help…HR has to be responsive and they have to capture the incident. If something is happening, we all have cell phones…take a cell phone picture, take notes of what you see happening, take notes about who is around. When it comes to an investigation, they’re going to want to know that…when you’re in an environment like that the employees have to take back the environment. The owners and the c-suite [have] to be on board with the employees.
Gassam: You currently offer services to help companies deal with the bystander effect. Can you share a little bit about that?
Originally posted on Forbes