There have been plenty of bad stories lately involving a hero.  James Shaw disarmed a shooter at a Waffle House, limiting the death count to four.  The last person to leave the hospital after the Parkland school shooting was Anthony Borges, a student who shielded others with his own body.  And when an engine exploded on a Southwest flight recently and broke a plane window, Andrew Needham pulled Jennifer Riordan’s body back into the plane in an unsuccessful attempt to save her life.

What makes these stories so amazing is that most of us aren’t programmed to respond in this way.  Most people respond to danger by running away from it, especially when there are others around us who could also help.  In psychology, this is called the bystander effect.  For every hero in these situations, there are dozens of others who wait for somebody else to step up – and unfortunately, in many situations, nobody ever does.

This is exactly what happens when someone does something immoral, unethical, or illegal in the workplace.  If you’re hoping that there’s a hero around who will stand up and risk their own job or reputation to report the wrongdoing, you might get lucky.  More often than not, however, you’ll passively experience the bystander effect without ever knowing it, because you’ll never hear about the wrongdoing.

One of the easiest ways to prevent the bystander effect is to train people to notice the unconscious choice they’re making to avoid danger, and to overcome that instinct and take specific actions they’ve learned ahead of time.  This is exactly how CPR training works – the classes teach those giving CPR to overcome the bystander effect by assigning specific tasks to specific people, so they can’t wait for someone else to call 9-1-1 or assist with the CPR.

Unfortunately, if your employees are bystanders during events like these, they may be happening far more than you realize. If you want your employees to overcome the bystander effect when they see wrongdoing, you’ll need to show them how to recognize that it’s happening and choose to ignore their instincts and report the behavior.  They’re much more likely to do this if they’ve been trained on exactly how to report the activity, and have confidence that there’s limited danger to them – meaning their identity will be protected throughout the process, that they won’t suffer any retribution and that they’ll be covered by whistleblower protections, if necessary.

The best thing you can do is to consistently communicate with your employees to let them know that the organization is committed to preventing wrongdoing and misbehavior and to quickly addressing it if it does occur. Develop a consistently-timed training program (quarterly or semi-annually) to ensure all employees receive the same consistent message repeatedly and supplement that with other communications like an employee newsletter or stand alone email.

To learn how CMTS:HR can help your company manage and report on workplace investigations, call us at 855-636-5361 or email us at