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I stood by and did nothing

I stood by and did nothing

You see a colleague slacking off. You see the manager abusing his power and engaging in nepotism. Do you hold that person to account?

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Flagging up such issues is often the norm in organisations. At least on paper: If you see something, say something. However, investigations into wrongdoing often reveal that colleagues in the organisation were aware of violations but did not intervene. They stood by and did nothing.

Family culture

“Mr X described the department as ‘a group of friends’ and ‘like a family’, where everyone socialised with colleagues outside of work and was on friendly terms with each other. He emphasised that the organisation has an accessible and open, welcoming culture.”

During an investigation into a sexual harassment complaint at a semi-public institution, our team discovered that because of the informal and close-knit culture, colleagues showed lots of solidarity towards each other and helped each other out. But this culture also led to people remaining silent and not holding colleagues to account when unethical behaviour occurred. As a result of the open and close-knit culture in which many staff members were aware of the sexual harassment committed by a colleague, the harassment was not reported because people did not want to disturb the relationship, were hiding behind each other and were afraid of being ostracised by the ‘family’.


The greater the number of people in an organisation witnessing a violation of the code of conduct, the less likely it is that someone will report it. This passivity can be explained by a psychological phenomenon known as the ‘bystander effect’. First of all, the larger the group, the more unclear it is who is responsible for the situation. As the group becomes bigger, it also becomes easier for people to hide behind others and shirk their own responsibility. In addition, social influencing plays a role: people first look to see what others are doing. And as long as others stand by and do nothing, they communicate that passivity is the norm. People then infer that there is a reason why others do nothing. Perhaps the incident is not as serious or the offence is not so bad as it seems, or perhaps it is the victim’s own fault. In addition, people feel inhibited because any action they take will be seen by the group and may be rejected. For fear of misunderstanding or misjudging the situation, people are reluctant to take action.

Cartoon illustration comfort to report misconduct

Breaking the silence

The solution is to break the silence and passivity around undesired behaviour. Emphasising the importance of this on paper is not enough. Whistleblowing schemes and hotlines for reporting wrongdoing are useful, but only to a limited extent. It is primarily about a culture in which everyone knows and takes their own responsibility to act when an incident occurs. In order for people to dare to speak up, the fear that staff members who misjudge the situation and take unnecessary action will suffer (disproportionate) consequences must be removed. A sense of security is essential to facilitate that people hold each other to account and address undesired behaviour. Our team has developed a number of effective incentives and interventions that contribute to increasing the comfort to report misconduct within organisations.

Would you like to know how to improve the comfort to report misconduct in your organisation? Please feel free to contact us about this issue; we are happy to discuss it with you.

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