The “bystander effect” and how it affects our workplaces.

Here’s an interesting view into human nature: Experience tells us that far more people will pass a disabled motorist on a busy highway without bothering to stop, compared to stopping for a person stranded on a lonely country road.

This phenomenon creeps into the business world, too — and particularly in a situation which some of us have probably experienced at least a few times during our careers: There’s someone at work who is clearly deficient in their job. Worse yet, the deficiencies aren’t due to incompetence, but to undesirable character traits like sloth, a sour attitude, deficient interpersonal skills — or even questionable ethics.

Moreover, the behavior of the individual falls in the “everyone knows” category.

The question is, what happens about it? Too often, the answer is “nothing.”

Social scientists have a name for this: the “bystander effect.”   It means that “what’s everybody’s business is nobody’s business.”

In mid-2019, several researchers at the University of Maryland studied the topic by fielding several pieces of research. In a first one, nearly 140 employees and their managers working at a Fortune 500 electronics company were surveyed.  That survey found that employees were less apt to speak up about problems they perceived to be “open secrets.”

Two other components of the field research – one a survey of 160+ undergraduate students and the other a study involving behavioral experimentation with nearly 450 working adults – found essentially the same dynamics at work.

According to the University of Maryland research study leaders, Subra Tangirala and Insiya Hussain:

“In all three studies our results held even when we statistically controlled for several other factors, such as whether participants felt it was safe to speak, and whether they thought speaking up would make a difference.”

The inevitable conclusion? Tangirala and Hussain reported:

“Our research shows that when multiple individuals know about an issue, each of them experiences a diffusion of responsibility — or the sense that they need not personally take on any costs or burden associated with speaking up.

They feel that others are equally knowledgeable and, hence, capable of raising the issue with top management. As issues become more common knowledge among frontline employees, the willingness of any individual employee to bring those issues to the attention of top management decreases.”

Sadly, the University of Maryland research shows that the “bystander effect” is the perfect recipe for companies to keep loping along without making HR changes — and not realizing their full potential as a result.

There’s another downside as well:  If left unaddressed, festering issues involving “problem” employees can engender feelings of frustration on the part of the other employees — along with the sense that an underlying degree of fairness has been violated because of the efforts the other workers are making to be productive employees. Unfortunately even then, no one wants to be the person to blow the whistle.

More detailed findings from the University of Maryland research can be accessed here.

What about your experiences? Have you ever encountered a similar dynamic in your place of work? Please share your insights with other readers.

The closed world of open office environments.

If you ask company managers and CFOs if they prefer “open office” concepts over private offices, you may well get a different answer than if you ask the people who actually work in open office environments.

There are two attractive aspects about open office plans that surely warm the hearts of many business managers. One is the notion that an open office environment encourages more interaction and spontaneous collaboration among employees.

The other is that open office concepts don’t cost as much to build and maintain as do private offices.

So … let’s break this down a bit.

Speaking personally, I’ve visited numerous company headquarters and branch locations where open office plans are prevalent … but what I see and hear isn’t interaction. Instead, it’s more likely to be mounds of white noise with employees sitting at their desks focusing intently on their computer screens.

Any interaction that may be happening is closer to the hushed sounds of a reference library — or even the confessional zone in the back of a Roman Catholic or Anglican church — than it is to any kind of bright, casual conversation with ideation happening all over the place.

This can’t be what managers had in mind – even if they’re shaving 25% or more off of their facilities management budget.

Now we have some new evidence to support the anecdotal evidence. Researchers at the Harvard Business School studied two Fortune 500 companies that made the transition to an open office plan from one where workers had more privacy.  The firms agreed to allow themselves to be the subjects of before/after evaluation.

The research wasn’t done via a survey, which would likely be susceptible to respondent bias (a fear of being honest and saying something that goes against the common managerial POV). Instead, the actual worker behaviors were charted using “sociometric” electronic badges and microphones that were worn by the employees for several weeks before and after the office redesigns.

The badges worn by the participants included an infrared sensor, a Bluetooth® sensor and an accelerometer that, when combined with a microphone, could discern when two people had a face-to-face interaction (but without recording the actual words spoken).

The Harvard research also studied before/after data pertaining to the volume of e-mail and instant messenger use by the employees.

Even though other variables remaining the same in the before/after evaluation (the same employees … before/after study periods occurring during the same business cycle), the changes in behavior were startling:

  • Employees spent ~73% less time in face-to-face interactions
  • E-mail use rose by ~67%
  • Instant messenger use grew by ~75%

The research also looked at shifts in interactions between specific pairs of work colleagues, where it found a similar dropoff in face-to-face communications along with increased electronic correspondence (although not to the same degree as the overall research results showed).

Furthermore, the research determined that workers tended to interact with different groups of people online than they did in person, which opens up even more potential concerns about the reduction in collaboration that would be happening as a result of moving to the open office concept.

Speaking in a post-study interview, Harvard Business School professor Ethan Bernstein’s conclusion was that there’s “a natural human desire for privacy — and when we don’t have privacy, we find ways of achieving it.”

In the case of preferred office configurations, people simply don’t like fishbowls. Deskside chats don’t happen, and other face-to-face interaction is severely limited as well.

In other words, open office plans don’t result in increased personal interaction, but they do create a more digital environment.  That seems like the polar opposite of what management wants.

Of course, to reduce a company’s facilities budget, an open office environment remains the preferred thing to do.  So maybe companies need to drop all of the pretense about “facilitating positive collaboration and spontaneous brainstorming.” Just tell employees what’s really behind shifting to an open office concept:  spending fewer dollars.

At least employees might appreciate the honesty rather than the obfuscation …

A detailed article summarizing the research, co-authored by Harvard researchers Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban, can be accessed here.

“Don’t Tread On Me”: Employees have strong feelings about employers gaining access to their social media profiles.

Social media privacyRecent news reports that some companies are asking their current employees or prospective new hires to grant them access to their private social media profiles haven’t set well with many people.

It seems that while people don’t mind publishing their personal information for friends and families to see, they’re not keen at all on employers having access as well.

This is borne out in the latest American Pulse survey from BIGinsight, a consumer information portal. In that survey, which queried nearly 3,600 American adults over the age of 18, respondents were asked how they would react to a request by an employer to hand over personal social media passwords, thereby gaining access to their profiles.

Approximately one in five of the survey respondents reported that they are not engaged in social media.  But among the remainder, most would resist the employer’s request … even to the extent of quitting their job:

  • Would quit a job or withdraw an employment application: ~52%
  • Would delete social media pages to prevent them from being seen: ~21%
  • Would go ahead and provide social media passwords to the employer: ~14%
  • Would edit social media profiles first … then provide passwords: ~13%

Based on the opinions of the respondents, it’s not at all surprising that the survey also found that ~85% think that when employers asking for access to social media profiles, it’s an invasion of privacy.  And only about 11% of respondents would be “comfortable” sharing their social media profiles with a potential employer.

There does seem to be a bit of altruism at work, because the preponderance of survey respondents (~72%) claim that they have “nothing to hide” on their social sites.

No doubt, Americans’ views about online privacy are borne out of the “live free or die … don’t tread on me” tradition of individualism in this country.  We love our ability to express ourselves … but spare us the KGB/Stasi routine!

What’s the Latest with Employee Satisfaction?

Coming off the worst recession in memory, just how happy are Americans in their jobs today?

An online survey of ~450 American adults conducted in late February by enterprise feedback management and research firm MarketTools has found that only ~34% consider themselves “very satisfied” in their current job positions:

 Very satisfied: ~34%
 Somewhat satisfied: ~40%
 Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied: ~10%
 Somewhat dissatisfied: ~10%
 Very dissatisfied: ~5%

Those results would seem to portend that a significant number of people will be looking to change jobs in the near-term future.

And in fact, nearly 50% of these respondents reported that they’ve “considered” leaving their current positions – and more than 20% have actually applied for another job within the past six months.

What’s causing dissatisfaction among employees? They’re the usual things, beginning with salary, although many respondents cited multiple contributing factors to employee dissatisfaction:

 Salary level: ~47% of respondents
 Level of workload: ~24%
 Lack of opportunity for advancement / career development: ~21%
 Relationship with manager / supervisor: ~21%
 Medical benefits issues: ~20%
 Work environment: ~14%
 Length of commute / distance from home: ~14%

It shouldn’t be too surprising to witness an increase in job-hopping behavior following economic downturns. For those lucky enough to have held onto their positions during the recession, the working environment has likely been more stressful, as employers required more productivity from fewer workers.

It’s also likely that benefits packages were reduced to some degree. So it’s only natural for people to nurse some residual negative feelings about the situation and to possibly consider jumping ship to another employer.

But would that be the best move?

Often, moving to a new employer doesn’t result in the improvements the employee expected to find. And smarter companies will use the improving economic climate (such as it is) to reward those employees who hung in there when times were tough. After all, these are their better workers!

Salary and benefit increases are always going to be appreciated … but so is the opportunity for continued growth and career development.

It’ll be quite interesting to see what the job-hopping statistics show a few months from now.

How “social” should your office environment be?

In the early years of the Internet, companies worried about the loss of productivity if employees were tempted to surf online in amongst their work duties. There was also the issue of the “appropriateness” of the web content being viewed. In response, various web tracking capabilities were introduced that enable companies to monitor online activities on networked computers.

On the other hand, as the Internet became all-pervasive in daily life, many companies also adopted a policy of allowing a modest amount of web surfing during work breaks to allow employees to conduct personal business such as shopping and bill-paying.

Now, with the rise of social media, the whole issue has been brought to the fore once again. The proliferation of Facebook accounts in particular has resulted in a new spike of personal online activities at work. A recent study by Nucleus Research bears it out. Based on study findings, Nucleus deduces that companies allowing employee access to Facebook lose an average of 1.5% in total employee productivity. And in an era of cutthroat competition globally, 1.5% of productivity is no slouch amount.

To reach this conclusion, Nucleus Research found that slightly more than three-fourths of the employees surveyed have a Facebook account. Of those who do, nearly two-thirds admitted to accessing their account during working hours.

The average amount of time spent per day on Facebook on office time is about 15 minutes – although the study uncovered a few employees who spent upwards of two hours daily during work hours. (Shame on those employees … but shame on their employers, too, for being so utterly clueless about those employees’ behavior!)

Of course, some people’s activities on Facebook have a business purpose, don’t they? Well … it is true that some employees manage “fan” pages for their company as an adjunct of their personal Facebook account. But that shouldn’t represent more than a small portion of any firm’s workers – perhaps those in the marketing, sales, HR or shareholder relations departments.

And the Nucleus Research study findings reflect this as well, because nearly 90% of the respondents who access Facebook at work could not articulate a business justification for doing so.

Perhaps the study’s most surprising finding was the ~5% of respondents who never access Facebook anywhere but at work. What this may mean is that they built their entire Facebook profile on work-time as well. Chalk up some more wasted hours!

The Nucleus Research findings demonstrate that as time progresses and various social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter become even more pervasive communications tools for people at all levels in the organization, the old guidelines for balancing work and personal life must continue to evolve.

The kneejerk reaction is to simply block access to Facebook on all office computers. But there will always be some employees who have a legitimate business reason to be on Facebook. And then there are the the ever-growing ranks of telecommuters working offsite, who surely have access to alternate laptops or PDAs even if their company-issued equipment blocks access.

As is usually the case with situations like this, the easiest fix is sometimes not the best one. And at the end of the day, “big brotherism” could reduce employee morale even further — hardly the result one would hope for in the current difficult business climate where “improving company morale” is far more just an abstract concept in an HR textbook.