What Elie Wiesel Can Teach Us About the Power of the Bystander

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The following post was shared by Gail Golden, a psychologist and consultant specializing in executive coaching.

I keep getting the same request from business leaders, government agencies, and not-for-profit organizations: help us make our workplaces safe and respectful.

Some of this is triggered by the #MeToo movement, but it’s broader than that. Leaders are rapidly learning how important a safe and respectful environment is to the success of their organizations. In a narrow sense, they want to protect their companies from litigation and bad publicity. But more broadly, they have also come to realize that a harassing, intimidating environment is just bad business. It increases costly absenteeism and turnover, and it decreases the energy and creativity that employees bring to their work.

As we work with companies to help them address this issue, one topic keeps coming up — bystander intervention training. As I have written before, in the triad of harasser/target/bystander, it is the bystander who often has the best chance to make a difference. As a witness, not a participant, in the harassment scenario, in many cases the bystander has the greatest power to stop the harmful behavior.

One of the most profound reflections on the power of the bystander comes from Elie Wiesel, the Nobel-prize-winning author and teacher who survived Auschwitz in his teens. One of Wiesel’s early books, The Town Beyond the Wall, is based on his quest to understand the people in his hometown who stood by silently as their Jewish neighbors were rounded up and sent to the death camps.

And now, one of Wiesel’s students, Ariel Burger, has written a book about what he learned from Wiesel, Witness. The book contains much wisdom, but a single sentence stood out for me: “The key in all of this is: Never allow anyone to be humiliated in your presence.”

Never allow anyone to be humiliated in your presence. It sounds so simple. But how often has each of us done just that? Your manager berates one of her team members publicly and you sit silently, relieved that you aren’t the one on the hot seat. A colleague shares a sexist joke and you don’t speak up for the woman in the room — after all, you don’t want to be seen as a stick-in-the-mud. A valuable customer makes a rude, insulting remark about one of your team members and you don’t call him on it — can’t risk losing the account. We all can think of times when we watched silently as someone else was publicly mistreated.

Wiesel witnessed some of the most horrendous abuse the world has ever known. Thank goodness what we see in the workplace doesn’t come close to that horror. And yet, out of that darkness emerged a sage with a message that can help us navigate the complexities of the 21st century company.

Never allow anyone to be humiliated in your presence.

Gail Golden, MBA, Ph.D., is the Principal of Gail Golden Consulting, LLC, and specializes in executive selection and development. To build skills for intervening in and stopping harassment, email Ms. Golden at ggolden@gailgoldenconsulting.com or read her article on bystander intervention training.