top of page

Workplace Complicity – The Bystander Effect

If we want change, we can't stay silent

It was supposed to be just another corporate seminar.

A routine one in fact – the annual accounting updates for charities, held at one of the large accounting firms.

NOT the place you’d expect to engage in a #MeToo confrontation with a misogynistic, sexist man.

But if you think about it, maybe it’s EXACTLY the place that harmful statements against women can be made freely. Because we’re too conditioned in our polite, Canadian, corporate business world culture to grab the microphone and speak out against it.

This was in 2018, shortly after the $100 million class-action sexual harassment lawsuit against the RCMP was publicized. And the #MeToo movement (against sexual harassment of women) was in full swing.

The accounting firm (which will not be named) had their national leader of inclusion and diversity, a white woman, present in front of 100+ not-for-profit executives about #MeToo and sexual harassment at work. She talked about the broad impact of #MeToo, legislative changes to protect women, and actions for Boards and management to take.

During the presentation, one voice – one male voice – asked some very pointed questions.

"So now $100 million is going to be paid out to these women. Who’s going to pay for that? Taxpayers?!”

  • “What exactly was done against these women? Was it proven?”

  • “It seems like you can get in trouble just for shaking a woman’s hand these days! How do you know what’s OK and not OK anymore?”

The response from the female national leader of inclusion and diversity to that last one?

“If you wouldn’t want your mother to know about it, it’s not OK.”

[Note – these were not their exact words, but a very fair representation from memory.]

As the seminar went on, I noticed that the only people asking questions during the #MeToo discussion were men. Aside from the ones above, the questions centred around legal ramifications, protecting their organizations (and themselves) against liability, and even “have we gone too far the other way?”

No women asked questions or made comments.

No one talked about supporting women through trauma, or the reason #MeToo was needed in the first place.

And most importantly – no one spoke up against the ignorance, disrespect, and complete disregard for women that was blatantly on display by that man.

I have to take accountability for my own silence. I did not immediately speak up either. There were audible gasps around the room as the man made his sexist and discriminatory comments. But no one said anything, including me.

If you’ve heard of the Bystander Effect that happens in emergency situations, you may see some parallels here. says: “The bystander effect occurs when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening…It’s natural for people to freeze or go into shock when seeing someone having an emergency or being attacked. This is usually a response to fear—the fear that you are too weak to help, that you might be misunderstanding the context and seeing a threat where there is none, or even that intervening will put your own life in danger.”

I don’t know what other people in the room were thinking, but I can tell you what was going on in my head.

  • Is this really happening? Did that guy really just say that out loud?

  • Is anyone going to speak up against this?

  • Surely the National Lead of Inclusion and Diversity is going to stop this guy!

  • OK, no one is saying anything. Is it just me? Am I the only one who thinks this is wrong?

  • What should I do? Should I say something?

  • We seem to have moved on to other questions. Is it too late to speak up?

  • Is it better just to leave it alone? Let sleeping dogs lie?

  • My direct reports are here with me. Am I setting a bad example if I don’t say anything?

  • Why aren’t the women here saying anything?

  • How can this be happening in the age of #MeToo? I thought it was supposed to empower us against this very thing!

  • Is this a Canadian thing? Are we just too polite?

  • Clearly, national diversity programs aren’t changing corporate workplaces. If the woman in charge of diversity won’t speak up against this guy, what chance do the rest of us have?

  • I want to say something, but I’m too scared to. It’s not fair to put this all on me.

Can you relate to this? Have you ever been in a position to call someone out for what they said or did?

Most, if not all, of us have been in work situations where in racist, sexist, discriminatory or inappropriate comments were made.

Maybe it was more innocuous. Maybe it was a passing comment or joke at the lunch table. Or maybe it was more prominent – something the CEO said at an all-staff meeting.

This seminar was two years ago, and a lot has happened since then. Voices of the oppressed are louder and stronger. There seems to be more willingness from employers to listen and change.

But I have my doubts on the success of training and programs on diversity and inclusion at work, and that seminar experience is why. I was in a room full of privileged, educated business leaders working in charities. Organizations and individuals who ostensibly care about the vulnerable and needy. If this group of people, at the height of #MeToo, were not grabbing the mic to defend women – then who will?

Finding Your Voice

This story has a semi-happy ending. Ultimately, I did end up grabbing the mic and telling my colleagues that I thought that man’s comments were wrong. And I called us all out, including myself, for not saying anything earlier. I asked us to speak up next time, and not stay silent.

I’m sharing this not to boast about my actions, but to encourage you with its impact. People in the room applauded, and several women – and men – told me afterwards that they were glad I said something. My staff told me they were proud that their boss spoke up. The firm’s national charity practice leader called me afterwards to debrief the incident and ask for my feedback.

Clearly, I was not alone in thinking the man had to be stopped. Others were thinking it too, and like me, were paralyzed to say anything.

When something like this happens to you – and trust me, it’s a question of when, not if – I hope you will take courage from this, and find your voice to speak up. Because the people around you, and the people who have no voice, are counting on you to say what they can’t.

Share your stories and comments.

What would you do in this situation? Have you had a similar experience? Add a comment on our Facebook page, join our Facebook group to start a discussion, or contact me to share your story.

More from

How can you avoid being a passive bystander?

“Don’t expect others to be the first to act in a crisis—just saying “Stop” or “Help is on the way” can prevent further harm. Speak up using a calm, firm tone. Give others directions to get them involved in helping too. Do your best to ensure the safety of the victim, and don’t be afraid to seek assistance when you need it.”


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page