Kelly Charles-Collins

Taking action against injustice at work

18 Oct 2019   |   Culture

Kelly Charles-Collins

Taking action against injustice at work

18 Oct 2019   |   Culture

Have you ever witnessed your boss or a coworker say something wildly inappropriate? Or have you trained yourself to become aware of microaggressions? ​

Building a better future of work is not just about awareness, but about taking action. Yet, our default attitude is to assume that someone else to going to do that hard work to get to the future we want. ​​

Kelly Charles-Collins introduces us to the bystander effect. To be a real ally, you can’t just be an armchair critic, but you need to jump into the action and do something.

What we learned from this episode

The bystander effect is the concept that the more people that there are present, the less likely they are as individuals to react. When we’re witnesses to arguments or harassments, we’re looking around who’s going to jump in first. ​

If you’re a bystander intervening in situations, you want to make sure that you are de-escalating the situation. If you think that your behavior or whatever you’re thinking of doing is going to escalate that situation, then it’s not the proper time or place to do it.

What you can do right now

The only way to overcome the diffusion of responsibility is to realize that our responsibility is to act. ​​

Create an environment where people feel safe to speak up; an environment that’s supportive and inclusive and a place where everyone stands against anything that’s inappropriate.

Key quotes

“We’re just like, ‘Well, it doesn’t involve me. It’s not my business.’ But it really is all of our business.”​

“There’s all kinds of ways for us to do something. But silence is not an option.”​​

“If we let other people make decisions for us, we’re giving away our power.”​​

“We like being part of things, we like to be parts of groups. And so, we can either choose to be part of the positive group that’s really doing something to intervene and make sure that we have a safe environment. Or we can be part of the group that just sits back and allows it to happen.”

Links mentioned​​​​​​

Today, our guest is Kelly Charles-Collins. She’s an attorney, TEDx speaker, author, and consultant. And today we’re talking about Work Minus Bystanders. Hi, Kelly. How are you?

Hi, Neil. How are you? So glad to be here with you and your audience.

So, I wanted to introduce people to you because you have a really fascinating topic you like to talk about. But tell us about yourself first. Who are you? How did you get to the place where you are now?

I empower leaders to stay on the right side of the next hashtag movement. So, for over 20 years, I’ve been an employment lawyer, mostly representing companies when they get a charge of discrimination, a lawsuit, any of those things, and I try their cases. But also over that time, what I have really realized is that it’s important to not just provide my clients with the reaction part of my work, but also to be proactive. And so, in that I’ve done a lot of training over the years with helping them with workplace investigations, and really how to not discriminate against people. And you know what those things look like. So, over the past year or so, I’ve really focused on discussing unconscious bias, really disrupting unconscious bias, getting people to not be bystanders, which is what we’ll talk about today. Because we have a lot of people who, in the workplace in particular, “It’s not my business. I’m not getting involved.” And some of it is born out of fear. And then the last topic that I really talk about is workplace investigation. The great thing about those three topics is that they really work together. You can create a Venn diagram of those three things. And they’re all very, very important topics to keep businesses out of courtrooms and newsrooms.

I love your story because you start off saying, “I will help defend you or take your case when these charges come.” And it’s almost like saying, “You know you could stop these from happening, right?”

Right. “You know you don’t have to be here.” And it’s funny because you’d think as a defense attorney, it’s like almost talking yourself out of business. But there’s always going to be something happening so there will always be a need for me as a defense attorney. But it’s important if I’m doing the right thing for my clients. It’s in their best interest to keep them out of newsrooms and courtrooms. And so, my experience as a trial attorney helps me to reverse engineer all of these issues so I can tell them, “Listen, if you don’t do these things, you won’t end up over here.”

Excellent. Well, let’s start off. What is the bystander effect?

The bystander effect is the concept that the more people that there are present, for example, who witness an event, the less likely we are as individuals to react. And the reason is because we’re looking around who’s going to jump in first. And that’s based on could be fear. You’re fearful of the situation. You’re fearful for your own safety. You’re fearful of being sued. Or you’re not sure if the situation calls for someone to jump in. It might look like an argument or it may look like somebody is being harassed. But you’re not really sure. And so, you don’t jump in. And so, we always hear there’s strength in numbers. But when it comes to the bystander effect, it’s really the opposite. The more people there are, the less likely we’ll jump in.

And how do you apply this in an office setting? It’s one thing if you’re walking down the street, and you see somebody having a heart attack or something like that. But where do you see it most? And how do you apply it most in the office?

In the office, I think we can all think about instances where we’ve seen somebody being harassed, or someone telling a dirty joke or an offensive joke, somebody being bullied, someone being spoken down to. In a meeting, having somebody take somebody’s idea and take credit for it. So, you said something in a meeting, and then another person says it and that person gets credit for it. There’s all these little daily interactions that happen. And either because we’re afraid that if we say something, we’re going to be retaliated against, we don’t say anything, we don’t get involved. Or we’re just like, “Well, it doesn’t involve me. It’s not my business.” But it really is all of our business.

And this is also applied in the digital world. I know it does, but how does it? In terms of if you are copied on an email that somebody else is using the wrong language or is using some innuendo or something like that, do you feel like the effect is the same in the digital world?

Absolutely. And even more so now because a lot of our communication is that. It’s not face to face, particularly where we have this very big gig economy and so people are working remotely. And a lot of our communication happens via email. And the thing is that, as somebody who sees something or hears something, we have a responsibility to act. How we act may be different. And how we respond to what happens may be different. So, if you get an email, for example, it’s your boss, and you feel that your boss has said something inappropriate. And he’s copied everybody on the team. Well, I wouldn’t suggest to you that you reply all and say, “Hey, boss, I think that that was inappropriate.” But you may address it to your boss’s boss, you may go and have a conversation with your boss offline, or just to reply and not reply all and just say, “I’m concerned about that. I think that that was off colored or maybe someone that may have taken that in the wrong way.” There’s all kinds of ways for us to do something. But silence is not an option. We can’t just let things go by because if we stay silent, then we’re complicit because then the person thinks, “Oh, I got away with it. I’ll continue to do it.” And it will get worse over time.

I think this is true of social interactions in the office, but also even work related stuff when it comes to somebody thinks a marketing campaign is a bad idea, but if no one else is going to speak up about it, no one’s going to say anything. And so, this bystander effect, you see it in so many parts of the office, too.

Right. I mean, look at all the fashion houses, right? How does that come down the runway that somebody has a noose around their neck, or there’s a monkey on…? I mean, how does that happen? Everyone in that room… I can’t imagine that everyone in that room agreed. However, there is an environment that doesn’t allow for people to speak up. So, when we don’t act when we’re supposed to, then we’re giving away our power. If we let other people make decisions for us, we’re giving away our power. But what organizations have to do and leaders have to do is create these environments where people feel safe to speak up, and that the people who are speaking up are the majority or are the loudest voices so that the ones who are engaging in inappropriate behavior understand that this is not an environment that’s going to tolerate this. This is a supportive environment that is going to be safe and inclusive, and provide a space for people to be able to speak up if they see something, to stand up for someone if they see something, or hear something.

So, review a few of the reasons that people don’t act. What are the most common things you hear?

When they did the whole study on the bystander effect, the social psychological phenomenon, they came up with four areas. One is fear, which we talked about a little bit. The second one is this concept of ambiguity, being uncertain about the situation and not knowing if you should get involved, or not knowing if you’re capable of helping. So, if you see an accident or something, you may not think that you’re capable, medically, of helping the person. The other is affinity. So, affinity means just like me. I see someone who I have some connection to that could be race, gender, age, any number of characteristics. We like the same football team. If we have an affinity to someone, we are more likely to jump in and help them. We’re more likely to stand up for them. And the fourth thing is diffusion of responsibility, which is what I’ve been explaining about we’re waiting for everyone else. When I did my TEDx, I liken it to going to a restaurant, a whole group of people, and everybody waiting for who is going to pay the bill. The bill comes and we’re waiting for everyone else to pay the bill. And you just sit there and nothing’s happening because everybody is diffusing the responsibility for that. So, those are really the four areas when you look at why people act or why people don’t act.

Let’s talk about diffusing responsibility a little bit deeper. I mean, you can respond to this, but it’s not like there’s going to be less people in the world anytime soon. So, we’re just going to keep getting more people. So, it feels like, I’m going to have less and less responsibility that’s on me. But how can you overcome that? Or is it an option just to seek out smaller communities and seek out smaller circles around you so that you do have more responsibility?

Well, the diffusion of responsibility isn’t about necessarily your community. So, the diffusion of responsibility, the way to overcome that is for each one of us to realize that it is our responsibility to act, regardless. And there’s a spectrum. In my TEDx I talk about there’s a spectrum from doing nothing to doing something and there’s a whole lot of room between nothing and death. Because we either are going to do nothing or we think we’re going to die. And in between that, we’re just like, “Oh, let somebody else handle it.” But there’s so many things in between that spectrum that we can do. And so, if we don’t diffuse responsibilities, if we take on and understand that each one of us has a responsibility to act, then we can get rid of that issue. I was training last week some HR professionals last week. And what I was saying to them was, we all get afraid because we think we have to be the hero. And in our vernacular hero means that we have saved the day.We’ve done that final ultimate thing that saves the day. But when you’re talking about bystander intervention, being a hero could be as simple as saying, “No,” or, “Stop,” or picking up a phone and calling 911. Or going to your supervisor and saying, “Listen, I heard Mary saying to John something that I think was inappropriate. I think you should address it.” And it could go all the way into having to physically intervene if there’s something physical happening. So, there really is this spectrum of stuff that we can do, we just have to first accept that it’s our responsibility to act.

Where does ignorance play into this? Because I feel like that can be also a reason that people don’t act. And it’s because they almost choose to not be informed about things. If you’re not aware of a racial tension in your office or of what might be considered a micro aggression to somebody, then you’re not obligated to know about it or not obligated to act because you didn’t know. So, do you feel like that’s also a strong reason?

Yeah, willful ignorance, right? We see that a lot in a lot of different things. And what happens is that the organizations then have to make sure that we can’t claim willful ignorance. And so, they can bring people in like me to do training on unconscious bias on bystander intervention on micro aggressions so that the people there can’t say, “Hey, I didn’t know.” In action, it’s in difference. So, whether it’s willful or you just you want to act like you don’t know, we all know, we all see things that are happening, and we know that they’re inappropriate, or they make us feel like, not so sure about that. And so, our gut tells us things, and sometimes we choose to just ignore it because we don’t want to get involved. We have a culture of people who, we’ve always been told to mind your business, right? Ever since you’ve been a little kid, it’s like mind your business. That’s not your business. Well, it is our business. We’re all human beings. We all work in these environments. We all want to be safe. We want to feel empowered and included. So, it is our business. It is everyone’s business to get involved.

Do you feel like there are areas that do cross that line to say it really isn’t my business? I mean, I don’t want to stamp on your point. I think we do need to do that. But is there a place where maybe we shouldn’t jump into those situations?

No. Not to me. I think everything is our business. How we address what is our business is where the rub is. So, like I said, when I was younger, my mom taught me time and place. So, it may not be the time right then to jump in and say, “Hey, stop being a jerk or stop harassing,” or whatever. But you see something, you may do it later. So, intervening as a bystander doesn’t always have to be in the moment because it may not be the appropriate time. Or it may not be safe to intervene at that moment. Because the whole thing about a bystander intervening in situations is you always want to make sure that you are de-escalating the situation. You never want to escalate it. So, if you think that your behavior or whatever you’re thinking of doing is going to escalate that situation, then it’s not the proper time or place to do it.

So, let’s talk about this gap between, you go in, do a training, educate people about being a bystander, everyone signs a commitment guard and says, “Yes, I won’t be a bystander.” But then the actual event comes in, and we don’t really do it. We see ourselves in a more positive light. We think that we’re more capable of doing it. Where’s that gap? And how do you overcome that?

Constant training. So, it’s not a one and done because it’s not ingrained in some of us. Some people, it’s ingrained in them. They’re going to get involved, regardless. They’re going to get involved no matter what. So, you have to constantly reinforce these lessons for people, otherwise, it won’t become part of the fabric of who they are. So, it’s like anything. You get on a bike, you ride it once, and you’re like, “Oh, I’m so excited.” But then you have to get back on and you have to keep doing it or unless you forget. So, it’s a constant reminder and retraining, and having other people model the behavior, too. We like being part of things, we like to be parts of groups. And so, we can either choose to be part of the positive group that’s really doing something to intervene and make sure that we have a safe environment. Or we can be part of the group that just sits back and allows it to happen.

I like what you said about even the example that the fashion thing that comes on, because if somebody is coming down wearing a monkey and that’s my company, and I think it’s a dumb idea, but I didn’t say anything about that, I still have to tell people I work for this company and this is my brand that I’m about. And so, I feel like that’s also a powerful motivator for me to know that if something happens in my workspace, it’s still reflection of me, even if I didn’t say something about it. I think that’s a strong thing for me.

It’s funny because I was having a conversation with someone about that. And I was like, being a contrarian, I wonder if this is really a marketing ploy. Because if one person, one company does it, why is it that these other companies are doing it? You saw the backlash that they got, but they say as long as you have some press, or people are talking about you, right? And so, whenever those things happen, it gets them in the news, and some people say, “Oh, I’m going to boycott,” they never really do. They’re still going to make their money. But whatever it is, the controversy, controversy sells. And so, you have to really think sometimes about whether or not those things are intentional, because I want to not believe, let me put it that way. I want to not believe that there are people that are so high up in the organization that could be so ignorant, as you were asking about that word, are so ignorant to the fact that those things are offensive to a group of people.

Let’s talk about demographics. I want to talk about different approaches people have to this. As you have done your training in so many different places, have you noticed that there are certain groups of people that are more likely to be bystanders than others? And I mean, I’m talking race, gender, age, other. I mean, I’ll say it, I feel like older white men, and even probably younger white men, and white men in general, would be more likely to be bystanders because we have maybe more to lose in those situations. So, do you have any impression on that?

I have not seen that in the training. What I’ve seen, though, is people get very enlightened about when they choose to do it. So, for example, we were talking about harassment, sexual harassment in a training. And I put up the scenario and I purposely didn’t put the gender of anyone. And I asked the participants, how would you respond? What would you do? And this one woman, she raised her hand, and she goes, “You know what? I’m sitting here just realizing that if that was a man who was being harassed, I wouldn’t do anything about it, because I’m like, oh, he could take care of himself.” So, sometimes we look at the differences in authority, we may look at the differences in gender if we think somebody is weaker or stronger. And so, those things help us because we go through, when we’re deciding whether to intervene, we do go through a whole process. We notice what’s happening, we interpret what’s happening, we decide if we’re going to intervene, if it’s our responsibility to intervene, we decide how we’re going to intervene, and then we intervene. So, this process is going through our brain as we go in. And so, we look at all of these different factors before we decide to jump in. But I know that that’s definitely one thing when you talk about gender particularly in the workplace, whether or not people will feel the need to jump in, because if it’s a man involved, oh, he could take care of himself.

And there’s probably some element of the affinity nature, too, that you mentioned.

Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. And you see that all the time. You see that when they show videos, they’ll create a scenario, somebody who is disabled, or somebody who’s black and somebody who’s white, and they do the same type of scenario, and you see whether or not people stop and assist. And a lot of that has to do with whether or not there’s some type of affinity.

Earlier you talked about creating the environment where people feel safe to speak up. So, as a leader, if you’re managing a team, you got 20 to 50 people on your team, you want to create this environment where you don’t have a lot of bystanders, but you want to do the training, you want to get people educated. But what’s the next step? How do you actually create that culture?

You have to have conversations. One of the biggest things with any of these things, unconscious bias, bystander intervention, is really to start speaking, having people be able to speak and express what they’re feeling, and to create safe spaces for them to be able to do that. And again, as a leader, modeling that behavior. So, you can’t just always be the receptacle of the information. If you see something, you also have to say something and you model that behavior for your team. Your team goes the way of the leader. So, if they see you join that and they see that it’s okay to do that, then they will come along. You will always have somebody who you know is just not going to. It’s the nature of the beast. It’s the nature of the workplace. But it’s about modeling. And just like any other thing that we want to create a culture about, we want to create a culture of salespeople who are go getters and winners, what do we do about that? We create processes around that. We put those things into our mission statements. We put those things into our strategic plans. And we track. We datarize everything so that we can make sure that we can measure it and see how we’re doing better. And so, it’s the same thing with some of these soft skill kind of issues, you still have to have that same intentional mission to make sure that it works in your organization and not just be a check the box. Oh, we did the training, let’s check the box and move on.

Kelly, I really like your tagline about staying on the right side of the next hashtag movement. I feel like that’s, I mean, even if it’s fear inducing for people, it’s still a good thing to say. We see where culture is going. Hopefully we’re making improvements. Hopefully, we’re bringing things out of this. If you were to suggest to somebody, I’m going to tell everyone to take your training, that’s obvious. But what would be the next compliment you feel like is important to be able to continue to have an open mind and to be progressive about these thoughts? What’s the next thing they should do?

Well, the next thing they should do is really to do some soul searching. So, a lot of the training that I do raises awareness. So, it raises awareness so that you become cognizant that these things are out there. But then you also have to, after you get that training, really sit down and think about how can I implement those things. So, for example, for bystander intervention, I call it my four C’s, and I give them these four C’s so that they can say, “I know that I’m supposed to do something, but what do I do?” Because sometimes that’s what’s lacking. We tell people all these great things, but they’re like, “But how do I do that?” So, for example, with this, for the four C’s for safe intervention, I tell them, listen, first thing you do is connect with the person, eye contact, something so that they know that they’re not alone, and you see what’s happening. Second, to avoid this diffusion of responsibility thing that’s going on is connect with the other bystanders who are around so that you all know and start delegating who’s going to do what.

Two, you can create a distraction. “Stop. No. Enough.” Start asking one of them questions so that whatever is happening goes away, remove the person, physically remove the person from the situation, physically intervene. The other one is to call for help. Now, obviously, in the environment that we have now, we have to be careful. Some people may not want you to call for help. So, you may want to ask them, “Do you want me to call for help?” But if it’s a situation where somebody is being stabbed or beat mercilessly, just call for help. Worry about all the rest of it later. And then the fourth C is to capture the incident. And this is the same thing in the workplace. So, we think about capturing the incident with people with their cell phones out in the street. But you can capture the incident by if you see something or you hear something, write down what you’re hearing. Who was around? Where did it happen? What time did it happen? What date? Because the capturing of the incident is for evidence purposes. Right now, we’re in a social media frenzy where we capture everything so we put it on social media for likes. Hashtags, likes, don’t save lives. So, that’s not useful to anyone. So, when you’re capturing it, you’re capturing it for evidence to assist the person or authorities or your organization to be able to resolve this issue and stop it from happening again.

Great. Kelly, this has been really encouraging. I’ve taken a lot of things away from this. I think my favorite thing is when you talked about the hero concept that it’s not a binary thing where either you’re a bystander or you’re the hero. There’s a lot of levels in between that you can do. And so, that gives me encouragement to know that whatever I see, I can do something. I really appreciate that. It’s really nice. Where can people go to continue to track with you and learn more about you?

My website is That’s also my name on Linkedin and you can follow me on Twitter @hrlawattorney.

Fantastic. Well, Kelly, thanks so much for being on the show. We learned a lot and we are thankful for you sharing your insights with us.

Thank you so much.

Empowering smart organizations to stay on the right side of the next #hashtag movement.

Kelly Charles-Collins has the unique ability of making complicated, difficult, and sensitive topics approachable. As the CEO of HR Legally Speaking, LLC and an attorney, speaker, and author, Kelly uses her legal expertise, intuitive perspective, and warm personality to help people understand how our unconscious minds affects our decision-making in work and life.

She is a sought-after around the country because of her expertise in helping organizations and individuals realize how unconscious bias and indifference can stifle opportunity, prevent people from reaching their full potential, and cause harmful professional, personal, and legal issues.

Using her more than 20+ years of experience as an employment law attorney, Kelly empowers leaders to stay on the right side of the next #hashtag movement.

After working with Kelly leaders are able to identify the changes they need to make to improve culture, promote diversity and inclusion, boost productivity and protect their people and profit.

Kelly shares her expertise on disrupting unconscious bias, bystander intervention and conducting workplace investigations through training, consulting, and keynote speaking engagements.

Kelly authored her book ACE Your Workplace Investigations, delivered an award-winning TEDx Talk on The Bystander Effect: Why Some People Act and Others Don’t, and has been featured on television and radio and quoted in several publications.

Subscribe to The Digital Workplace

Join the journey to a better future of work