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Whistleblowing and Bystander Apathy: Connecting Ethics With Social Responsibility

Overcoming bystander apathy to improve social responsibility is possible and necessary.

Submitted by: Kirsty Matthewson

Posted: Aug 07, 2012 – 10:07 AM EST

Tags: bystander effect, ethics, whisteblower, csr, libor, goldman sachs, barclays, hsbc


By Kirsty Matthewson

After a day of weathering the company of my fellow man and, well, the weather, I am rarely inclined to lift my head from my paper on the train home, let alone be predisposed to altruistic action. And it feels OK to do that as everyone else around me behaves in much the same way.

But if at some stage on my journey I witnessed someone in need of help what would I do? What would you do? A quick show of hands indicates you are a lovely bunch of people who would never turn the other cheek to a person in need. But the Bystander Effect, or Genovese Syndrome, suggests otherwise.  

The Bystander Effect

The Bystander Effect refers to situations where passers-by don’t offer assistance when other parties are present.

The reasoning for this is a lot more complex than the modern curse of desensitization to the activities of those around us; there are a number of possibilities to consider.

  • Are we reticent to assist for fear of being ‘under-qualified’ to help effectively?
  • Is there an assumption, perhaps, that others will help or that if no one else is helping, why should we?
  • Is the severity of the situation diluted by the presence of others, of collective inaction (a phenomena known as ‘social proof’)?
  • Is it a coping strategy to prevent information overload?
  • Or are we simply paralysed by indecision?

Studies have shown the greater the number of parties present, the fewer the incidents of assistance; Bystander Effectwe take our cues from the behavior of others and it is, after all, less stress and hassle to ourselves to assume that others will intervene. This premise is beautifully illustrated in the smoke filled room study.

Many Financial Executives Ignore Wrongdoing In The Workplace

A recent survey of 500 senior financial services executives working in the U.S. and U.K. showed that 26 percent of respondents had witnessed wrongdoing in the workplace.

As you can imagine, statistics on the amount of people who report malpractice differ wildly depending on a plethora of contexts, but it’s likely to be less than it should be. Philippa Foster Back OBE, Director of the Institute of Business Ethics commented,

“This survey tallies with an upcoming survey from the Institute of Business Ethics that has also shown 20% of the British working public have seen wrong doing at work, but only half of those have done anything about it. Most cite it is none of their business, a concern that nothing will be done about rectifying the misbehavior or that they personally will suffer for raising the matter. This level of persistent Bystander Effect is worrying.”

Considering the negative ramifications that are often associated with turning a blind eye, why does it happen? Look at any of the multitude corruption cases in the national and international news (Barclays, News of the World, I could go on...) or the recent health care scandals in the UK, of staff and other patients failing to alert authorities when lives were being put at risk.

The Libor Case and Bystander Apathy

These situations expose a paucity of responsibility taken by onlookers, some of whom were indisputably involved. Each day sees new revelations in the Barclays Libor scandal. The extent to Barclays Libor Premiumwhich knowledge of interest rates rigging percolated through the echelons of the bank we may never know, although commentators seem confident that the results of FOI requests will keep their columns full for many months yet.

A number of MPs on the Treasury Select Committee have expressed serious doubts that Bob Diamond, the ousted CEO of Barclays, and Paul Tucker, the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, did not have knowledge of the acts. Barclays also appears to be inferring that other banks colluded to rig the crucial interest rate, stating in a memo to staff:

“As other banks settle with authorities, and their details become public, and various governments' inquiries shed more light, our situation will eventually be put in perspective.”

More recent shame to British banks came in the form of HSBC and its acceptance of $15 billion in cash from Mexican drug lords and Al-Qaida sympathisers. Comforting then to know that this happened under the watchful eye of government minister and advisor to George Osbourne, Stephen Green, and that the Conservatives recently blocked a judge-led, Leveson-esque enquiry into the banking sector.

Until a culture of zero tolerance prevails in our political and commercial systems we can only expect more of the same.

In the aforementioned survey, 16 percent of respondents admitted they would commit insider trading if they thought they would get away with it. With even the head honchos of Barclays, HSBC and Goldman Sachs and their regulators alleging ignorance to corrupt activity, and governments prepared to turn a blind eye, the message is clear and the tacit acceptance of bystander apathy re-affirmed.

Is it even possible to manage such vast operations effectively and ethically?

Overcoming Apathy

Interestingly, social psychologist Steve Reicher notes a behavioral and perceptual shift from the group as a collection of agents with the power to challenge order and disrupt social stability to the group as We Can Do Ita collective entity rendered impotent and ineffectual. In the context of the Bystander Effect, a diffusion of responsibility in the group is the result, due to its passivity and inaction. This diffusion of responsibility erodes our ability to maintain a safe environment in which to live and work. It also can perpetuate and normalize selfish behavior.

But this can be overcome.

Studies carried out by social scientist Arthur Beaman showed that after test subjects were educated about the principles of bystander apathy they were twice as likely to offer assistance to a person in need. Beaman reckoned that simply by understanding the phenomena and its attendant issues, positive engagement was established.

Whistleblower Motivations

Whistleblower motivations are the subject of considerable contention. It may be that the majority of whistleblowers do so for the greater good; it has also been suggested that potential whistleblowers are more inclined to report if they feel the issue could personally affect them.

But the cost is often high, with the whistleblower relegated to the status of interfering troublemaker or reward seeker.

In the context of the Bystander Effect, knowing that we are part of a group seems to give us substantive reason to act less as individuals. But if you are present in a situation then you should take responsibility for your involvement, whether that means actively participating or reconciling with yourself that you will not do anything. If you opt for the latter we must question why.

To engender responsibility in yourself and others is integral to combating apathy and to fostering a moral and ethical society.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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