The Bystander Effect – the tyranny of doing nothing

Earlier this week The Age published the findings of an independent survey by The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons on bullying and harassment. The report was commissioned after a senior surgeon, Gabrielle McMullin said earlier in the year that junior women doctors should ‘comply with requests’ for sex to protect their medical careers. The report described a toxic culture of bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment in the surgical profession, especially towards women and junior surgeons.

The college’s president, David Watters, apologised, and added: “I am sorry too many of us have been silent bystanders… we have failed to push back against the behaviour of those responsible and should have done more to support those who had been affected.”

Watters is not the first person to identify the insidious nature of the bystander effect. Lisa Croxford, Capability Development Manager at Herbert Smith Freehills, is passionate about raising awareness of the bystander effect[1] and discusses it in her interview for Career Interrupted – How 14 Successful Women Navigate Career Breaks. The bystander effect refers to situations in which individuals do not offer support to a victim when other people are present. It plays out in the workplace in several ways, such as ‘harmless jokes’, sexual harassment comments, or off-hand remarks to part-timers around their commitment to the firm and their careers. If these behaviours are not challenged, inappropriate behaviour is then either deemed acceptable or snowballs out of control. Part of the conundrum is about power imbalance — if a senior surgeon or, in the case of a professional services firm, a partner is going to make a remark, it takes guts for a junior associate to challenge him or her.

The former Chief of the Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison reminded us that ‘the standard you walk past is the standard you accept’. This is especially true of leaders who, through inaction or by refusing to hold others accountable around their poor behaviour can entrench a toxic culture in the workplace. Individually we can also show leadership by refusing to participate in a culture that disrespects women and standing up to unacceptable behaviour when we see it or experience it.

Want to read more? Career Interrupted – How 14 Successful Women Navigate Career Breaks (Melbourne Books) will be released in October 2015.

[1] Read Lisa Croxford’s article at