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The Bad Samaritan

A Look At The Bystander Effect And How It Occurs In The Workplace.

By Randy K Logsdon

Outside an inner-city convenience store, a young man is beaten by a thug and left lying on the street. Not the sidewalk or even the curb – the street. Seconds later another pair of thugs pounce on the young man and steal his wallet and cellphone. A crowd gathers but still no one offers to help. Then a cab turns the corner and runs over the victim. Minutes later he’s dead.

When I first read of this incident, I was struck by the contrast to the biblical story of the Good Samaritan. In the parable, Jesus relates to us the story of a man who was beaten and robbed and left by the roadside to die. Supposedly friendly folks (including a priest) pass by without assisting. Then a Samaritan man (one who is despised in the victim’s culture) stops to rescue, clothe and nurse the man back to health.

What has happened to the Good Samaritan in us?

Psychologists have a term for the groupthink response that occurs in these situations – the bystander effect, when the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening in an emergency situation. Two conflicting rules are at play here: “This person is in need; I should help him” and “No one else is helping, why should I?” Too often, the latter (a rationalized reaction) wins out due to the perceived diffusion of responsibility and social influence. It unfortunately prevailed with the crowd around our victim on the street.

To be sure, there are risks associated with helping in these situations. Among those risks are:

  • The possibility of being sued.
  • Exposure to infectious disease.
  • Interruption of other activity or plans.
  • Getting involved in someone else’s personal business.
  • Getting involved in a crime investigation.
  • Becoming another victim of violence.
  • Standing out from the crowd.
  • Doing the wrong thing.

Conversely, there is safety in the crowd. Right or wrong, you can’t be singled out. If helping was the appropriate action, surely someone would already have stepped up. Are there not people responsible for these types of situations – police, EMS, even the store clerk?

The bystander effect is not limited to street crime scenarios. It occurs much more subtly in our workplaces:

  • It occurs when we fail to stop a coworker or subordinate in the commission of an at-risk behavior.
  • It occurs when we walk past a hazardous condition.
  • It occurs when we demonstrate our willingness to take a risk to get the job done quickly.
  • It occurs when we take safety shortcuts for convenience.
  • It occurs when we use phrases like “No Harm–No Foul.”
  • It occurs when we assume that a coworker is aware and is controlling the risk we see.
  • It occurs when we assume that a coworker doesn’t want or need our help.
  • It occurs when we drive by a stranded motorist along the highway.
  • It occurs when our notion of “Who am I to criticize?” rules our response.
  • It occurs when we don’t have time to help.
  • It occurs when we just don’t seem to have the time to listen.

It occurs whenever we succumb to social rationalization over safety. Whether imagined or real, the social risk of speaking up can have a strong influence on a person’s actions in a given situation. Understanding those influences and emotions may help us defeat the bystander effect in the workplace.

After all, who wants to be a Bad Samaritan?